I am SO not a math and science person, but I think The Other Einstein may well end up as my favorite book of 2017. I remember seeing it reviewed in the New York Times when it first came out, but because I don’t give a hoot about science, I didn’t read it. I was afraid it would go over my head. (There is a little science in there I didn’t understand, but it is not at all overwhelming.) Over the next year or so it kept showing up in various places and when it appeared in the “People Also Bought” section on the Amazon pages for my books, I knew I had to read it. I wanted to know what readers (and Amazon’s algorithm) thought the books have in common.
As it turns out, that was identifiable right away. Not only is it about a strong historical woman whose story really hasn’t been told, the tone or “voice” of the book strongly matched my own. That is a hard thing to qualify, so you may just have to go with me on that idea. But I was hooked immediately and knew this was going to be the tale of my kind of woman: intelligent, determined and unwilling to let anyone or anything stand in her way.
The story opens with the early education and formative family years of Mileva Maric, an unusually smart Serbian woman, for whom no marriage is expected because a deformed hip has left her with a limp. Because of this, her father sees fit to encourage her love of school and studying, especially science. He even goes so far as to move the family to help her become one of only a handful of women who study at the Zurich Polytechnic university. During her first year of study – she is the only female physics student in her section – she makes a pact with one of her female roommates that they will eschew men and embark upon a life dedicated to study and science.
As we know from the title, that’s not what happens. A charming Mr. Einstein enters her life and everything changes. After years of her fending off his advances and a prolonged courtship due to money issues, Albert promises to build a life with Mileva based in intellectual discussion, shared science and joint experiments – the very thing of which she has always dreamed.
I won’t ruin the plot by telling you what happens, but I will say this: the very same things that made Einstein charming in the beginning make him a royal asshole as the story progresses. I can’t tell you the number of times I said out loud while reading this book, “You are such a dick.” Kudos to Marie Benedict for being able to create such a complex character that I was drawn in by him, only to be betrayed right alongside Mileva.
I wish Mileva would have fought back more. That is the one thing I wish was different in this book and about her character. She was so smart, so strong in many other ways, but Albert was her weakness. There were many times when I said to her, “why are you still taking this?” (I listened to the book on audio, so it wasn’t quite as weird to talk back to the character.) I would have told him off and gotten out of the relationship at the first hint of trouble. But then again, I’m a 21st century girl (great, now I’m singing “21st Century Digital Boy” by Bad Religion) who was raised on a healthy dose of feminism and the message that I can do anything I want and not to let anyone stop me. I’m sure being a woman in Serbia in the early 1900s, raised on the idea that your role in life is to keep house and have children would have given me a totally different mindset. As an author, I know Marie Benedict was being true to the time period, but it frustrated me as a reader.
And maybe that is not a bad thing. The fact that she elicited such strong emotion from me is testament to the author’s talent. I know I will never look at a picture of Einstein again within inwardly (and maybe outwardly) grumbling. I can’t even hear/read his name without shuddering now, given that he takes great pains in the book to remind Mileva that Einstein means “one stone” and point out that when they married they became one. You’ll have to read the book to see how that gets used against her. What Albert did to Mileva is appalling and puts her squarely in the ranks of some of history’s most royally-screwed women. If this book is to be believed (and it IS fiction, so Marie Benedict has had no shortage of controversy from readers/reviewers) Mileva was robbed of an honor that would have firmly emblazoned her name in history, among many other slights.
I can’t fathom why this book wasn’t a runaway bestseller. That is perhaps the highest praise I can give a book, and its author. I will definitely be reading Marie’s other books as she writes them. I only hope they all uncover stories like Mileva’s. They may be rough on the emotions, but they are stories that need to be told.
PS – Interesting side note: Marie Benedict has written three other books under the name Heather Terrell, The Chrysalis, The Map Thief, and Brigid of Kildare. I read one of them a long time ago and HATED it. HATED IT! She has come a long way. (No, I’m not telling you which one.) But I plan to read the other two now.