Monday, July 4, 2016

The Other Einstein: A Novel by Marie Benedict

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: April 29, 2016

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.

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Albert and Mileva Einstein, 1912
I feel like the only reader who wasn’t wholly enthralled by Marie Benedict’s The Other Einstein, but if I’m entirely honest, the novel didn’t draw in me as I’d hoped. I give Benedict a lot of credit for highlighting a lesser known individual, but the mechanics of the novel weren’t fully developed and the actual conflict came so late in the narrative that I’d all but given up hope of its delivery.

The relationship between Albert and Mileva takes center stage in the narrative, but I never felt it a true partnership. The whole thing felt distinctly one-sided and I often found myself frustrated with Mileva for allowing herself to be so marginalized for so little emotional and/or professional return. I couldn’t understand what Mileva saw in Albert which made Benedict’s emphasis of their union rather awkward. The issue was exacerbated further by Benedict’s interpretation of Albert. The famed scientist is difficult at best, but her portrayal is so far from his cultural legacy that it alienates those with any sort of appreciation for him.

Another thing I struggled with was the science behind the story. Both Albert and Mileva are supposed to have been brilliant, but Benedict shies away from the intricacies of their studies and profession. The unfortunate reality is that interest in the novel is vested in the couples’ command of physics, but I didn’t feel that Benedict effectively related those principles to her audience within the context of the narrative. Her characterizations did not carry convincing authority and that fact made their movements difficult to appreciate and credit.

Finally, I had trouble with Benedict’s themes. The injustices Mileva faced are extraordinary, but Benedict’s presentation is nothing short of suffocating. Mileva is the innocent victim of social prejudices, sexism, and an abusive husband. Each illustration punctuates her suffering, but the episodes occur with such frequency that I became numb to them and I don’t think that spoke to the author’s intention.

I feel Benedict’s story well-meant, but I would have liked to see a more coherent narrative structure, more complex character dynamics, more detailed scientific expositions, and less heavy-handed motifs. The Other Einstein is an ambitious story and one that is more than worth looking into, but Benedict’s effort struck me as rough around the edges and while I would recommend it, I’d caution my fellow readers to take the narrative with a grain of salt.

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We will be four professional women with busy lives of our own, here in Switzerland with its tolerance of women, intelligence, and ethnic peoples. We will have one another and our work; we need not follow the traditional path.”
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1 comment:

Mareli Thalwitzer said...

I've got this one planned for one of my holiday reads, thanks for your honest review! I'll make sure to have a salt container close by when I start reading this one!