Thursday, March 30, 2017

THE OTHER EINSTEIN, the reconstructed life of the first Mrs. Einstein


Sourcebooks Landmark
$25.99 hardcover, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: A vivid and mesmerizing novel about the extraordinary woman who married and worked with one of the greatest scientists in history.

What secrets may have lurked in the shadows of Albert Einstein’s fame? His first wife, Mileva “Mitza” Marić, was more than the devoted mother of their three children—she was also a brilliant physicist in her own right, and her contributions to the special theory of relativity have been hotly debated for more than a century.

In 1896, the extraordinarily gifted Mileva is the only woman studying physics at an elite school in Zürich. There, she falls for charismatic fellow student Albert Einstein, who promises to treat her as an equal in both love and science. But as Albert’s fame grows, so too does Mileva’s worry that her light will be lost in her husband’s shadow forever.

A literary historical in the tradition of The Paris Wife and Mrs. Poe, The Other Einstein reveals a complicated partnership that is as fascinating as it is troubling.


My Review: Marie Benedict, I salute you. The decision to tell the story of Albert Einstein's first wife, physicist Mileva Marić, and her intense intellectual beginnings fading into parental tragedy, emotional aridity, and ultimately humiliating drudgery, was bold beyond belief. There was quite simply no way on this wide green earth to make everyone with an interest in the story happy. Many would be satisfied with nothing less than a jargon-laden, drily scientific reconstruction of the potential/probable debates the couple most likely had. Others would faint from terror at the mere mention of names like Boltzmann, Mach, Drude, et alii. The line Benedict chose to tread was weighted in favor of broad strokes on all fronts. Imagine a Eastern European woman...arriving at one of the world centers of scientific inquiry at all, at a time in history when women had no vote to cast, no right to own property, and the very real risk of dying in socially mandatory childbirth across the entire world.

That was Mileva. Really, that is all that must be said of her. She was so exceptional that she arrived in this place at all, held her own academically, and but for meeting a charming rogue who wiled her out of her virginity and thus her rightful place in the world, might well have been as much a name to conjure with as Madame Marie Curie. Benedict does this by whisking us through the social life of Mileva's bluestocking buddies as they have musicales and climb local beauty spots, the whirl of cafe society among Mileva's male colleagues as they discuss and dispute their subject's roil and ferment over coffee, introducing us to the extraordinarily supportive Serbian father whose dreams and fears for Mileva come through his comparatively few actual lines. All in barely a hundred pages.

It is the fate of any author telling a private person's personal story to be an inventor. Dialogue can't be anything but invented. Letters, especially in the Belle Epoque, can (if Clio so wills it) be found and either quoted or digested, but Life isn't a novel and so doesn't offer the precise words needed for dramatic purposes. After all, fiction is a bunch of lies that, properly stuck together, make the truth undeniably visible to all. Benedict has very clearly made her way through a great deal of research material and has selected from the piles, stacks, boxes, shelves those moments and matters and words that best fit her plot.

The saddest part of the above, to me, is that she wasn't required to do very much discarding or eliding to make Albert Einstein into a proper shit of a man. The daughter he never saw, born out of wedlock because his harpy of a mother wouldn't countenance Mileva as a wife for her unemployed wastrel of a darling, was only the beginning of a life-long pattern of verbal abuse...there exists a letter from him to Mileva listing an appalling, humiliating list of conditions she must follow to be allowed to remain with the Great Man...and emotional neglect that extended to his two sons from their marriage. Not that he was any too cuddlesome to his cousin Elsa, aka Mrs. Einstein the Second: He proposed to her younger, prettier daughter after finally wearing Mileva down into agreeing to a divorce. Wise lady said no; her mama married Einstein anyway, knowing what was what.

Mileva's later Einsteinless life was one of economic deprivation, despite the eventual arrival of the Nobel Prize money promised to her in the divorce settlement. (Her own family's economic comfort evaporated with the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the Great War.) One of her sons was schizophrenic. Investing in a Swiss boarding house didn't work out well. Mileva was born under an unlucky star, and was so very clearly an intelligent, decent human being who deserved better than she settled for in life.

She was a tragic pioneer of women's rights to a place at the table in the sciences. She was a fascinating character. She deserves to be discussed, celebrated, lauded along side her famous ex-husband, and Marie Benedict has made a sold stride in that direction by writing The Other Einstein. September is National Science Club Month, and if I were in a science club, I'd demand we read this book. There is so very much to discuss in these pages, discussions that will last well beyond the club meeting itself.

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