Showing posts with label Marie Benedict. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Marie Benedict. Show all posts

Saturday, September 17, 2016

The Other Einstein by Marie Benedict

Rating: WARTY!

Note that this was an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

While I applaud the sentiment to write a book about Einstein's first wife, I have to say I was disappointed in the result. When I requested an advance review copy of this novel, I had initially thought it was a biography of her life, and I was very interested to read it, but it turned out to be a novel: a highly-fictionalized account of her life and as such, I think it did the real Mileva Marić a disservice. Note that her name is pronounced like Me-levv-ah Marityu as far as I can tell, but I'm not Serbian so caveat lector!

The first problem for me was first person voice, which is rarely a good voice in which to tell a story. It’s far too self-important, self-indulgent, breathless, and "YA" for my taste. It makes the mistake of imbuing a real person with thoughts, feelings, and opinions that were not hers and in this case, which are in fact alien to her, shaded as they are by modern American thought projected over a century backwards onto Eastern sensibilities. A good example of this appeared very early when I read, "Mama gifted me..."! That took me right out of the turn-of-century Switzerland into modern USA, and it wasn't the only instance of totally modern idiom pervading these pages.

Another problem for me was that first person also says something about the main character's sense of self-importance, and it felt wrong to imply that someone as evidently retiring as Mileva would promote herself with a book like this one. Not that she actually did in real life, but the suggestion is there in the writing: I, Mileva, did this! I, Mileva thought that! I, Mileva, am baring my soul to the world, and it didn't honestly feel like her to me. Not that I'm an exert on her by any means. I know only what I've read, but it felt inauthentic.

I had no choice but to try to overlook that and read on, ever onwards; however, in the end I couldn't make it to the end. I made it only sixty percent of the way through before giving it up as a bad job (which was before Einstein gave up the marriage as a bad job!), so please keep that in mind when reading this review. And please don't assume the arrogance or the impertinence to tell me that I can't review a book when I haven't read it all. Yes, I can, and the proof of the Slivovitz is right here!

Another problem for me was the author's gushing cheerleading for her main character. Mileva Marić was indeed a remarkable woman who beat the adversely-stacked odds of her time. She deserves a book, but she was not a superhero or a goddess, or even a towering intellect, and it does her no favors to pretend that she was! I'm not in the habit of reading introductions, forewords, prefaces or author's notes, but in the case I did skim the preface material and in my opinion, the author exaggerated her abilities to an embarrassing degree.

I read that she was a "brilliant woman" and if that was meant as a metaphor for the light she shone as an achiever in an age where women were pretty much condemned to exist only in the long shadows cast by men then I’d agree, but I rather suspect it was meant in an intellectual sense and I don’t see any evidence for this. Yes, she was smart. Yes, she achieved a lot which most women did not even imagine, let alone dream of back then, but does this equate with true intellectual brilliance? I don’t think it does. At another point I read: "Mileva Marić, who was a brilliant physicist in her own right" and I had to ask: "By what criteria?" On a point of order, she never actually was a physicist, despite her equaling Einstein's grade in physics in at least one exam!

What went wrong academically is hard to say. Mileva seemed to have experienced a roller-coaster ride with her math scores. Prior to the university, she passed final exams in 1894 with the highest grades, including those in math. She was an excellent student, who would no doubt put many modern students to shame, so it’s a bit of a mystery what happened with her diploma efforts. After she quit the academic world because of her pregnancy with the mysteriously vanishing child Liserl, she never really pursued her studies again.

She did not, contrary to popular opinion, contribute intellectually to Einstein's "miracle year" work nor to his later work. She never published any papers. In contrast, Einstein continued his work long after they separated. Correspondence between Mileva and Albert talking of "our work" referred not to work for which Einstein became known and for which he won wide acclaim and awards, but to the work they were doing as students on their diploma dissertations, which happened to be on the same topic.

This is not to demean Mileva Marić at all. She was a very capable and distinguished student by all accounts, and a smart and remarkable woman, but "brilliant"? I think you’d have to carefully define your criteria to make a statement like that because I also think that it demeans her far more to present a misleading view of her life than it does to tell the plain and simple truth about her which is quite remarkable enough.

In this light, I have to question the beginning of the novel which represents her erroneously arriving in Zurich as a naïf about to start on her higher academic life, when in fact Mileva was well-traveled before then, and had actually been living in Zurich prior to this. Nor was this her first exposure as a woman in a male institution. She had attended the all-male (until she arrived - albeit as a private student!) Royal Classical High School in Zagreb (a city I've visited myself and loved), and she'd subsequently attended the Girls High School in Zurich. After that, she began studying medicine at the University of Zurich. So no, she was not in any sense new to this "civilized" world, nor to this city, nor to this university!

But back to her physics credentials! She was not studying to be a physicist. She was training to be a teacher which is why she became a student in a teaching diploma course where she shared a class with five other students, all male, one of whom was Einstein. She never taught, having failed to pass the final teaching diploma examinations because of poor performance in math. Twice! So to suggest she brilliant and perhaps some sort of contributing partner in Einstein's work is misleading at best. They no doubt discussed some of his thoughts on those topics, and perhaps she helped him with his studies (as perhaps he helped her) in school and later with research, but to intimate that she was some sort of equal partner in his scientific life is not true. She herself never made any such claims, and there's no correspondence from her or to her indicating any such thing. To suggest otherwise is to detract from what she actually did achieve which was praiseworthy enough in itself

I also read that "Mileva was forced to subsume her academic ambitions and intellect to Albert’s ascent" and again I had to ask, where is the evidence for this? She dropped out to raise a family, but was she forced? Was this Albert's dictum? I don't think you can argue a good case for that. I have to wonder why an author would do this to Mileva. Are we to take home from this the idea that her ambition to raise a family (if that was her ambition) instead of pursuing a career in science was abnormal or beneath her, or that she was pressured and browbeaten into it? That she had no alternative? She took a final while she was pregnant for goodness sakes! She was not being dictated to or subjugated by anyone, and to suggest that she was is an insult to her. It's also an insult to anyone who's raised a decent family, male or female, and especially to women back then, and especially as a single parent - at least in the early months.

Mileva's withdrawal from academic life for anything other than illness was through her first pregnancy. Their daughter was named Liserl. What became of this girl is a mystery, but the best guess is that she died, possibly from scarlet fever when she was still an infant. While pregnant, Mileva failed in her second attempt at passing her diploma and gave up on her PhD ambitions at that point. It would seem clear that she was not forced into anything. It seems from the available evidence that she was not academically up to pursuing what she had initially aimed at, and she gave up that pursuit in favor of pursuing a family, which is an equally worthy endeavor.

So what bothered me most about this novel was the inconsistency, On the one hand we're being told she's brilliant and was somehow prevented from pursuing academics, but on the other we're shown an air-headed girl who can't focus on school-work because of her giddy obsession with Albert, which has her mindlessly blowing money on a trip to be at a village near him and sitting around, too distracted to even read, and doing nothing but wait in the desperate hope he will come visit! I resented this picture of Mileva and I found it demeaning. Brilliant people of course can be giddy, but this isn't math: there is no Commutative Law here. You cannot equally argue that if truly brilliant people are giddy, then giddy people must be smart!

The inconsistency (that serious student was somehow robbed of her career) falls apart when we read, "It didn't help that I kept drifting off into daydreams about the trip to Como..." I found it insulting to Mileva that she purportedly had such an adolescent crush on Albert that it was affecting her schoolwork. Personally I cannot credit that; not with a woman like this one, but even if it were all true, it still flies in the face of what's said elsewhere about her being brilliant and being a strong student. I'd believe those latter two traits long before I'd believe the rather vacuous starry-eyed version of Mileva Marić with whom we're far too frequently presented here. We get too much of this with poor maligned Mileva: "Stomach fluttered" (location 825 on Kindle), "stomach churned" (841), "stomach lurched" (1132), "Stomach fluttered" (1191), "stomach lurching" (1252), knot in my stomach hadn't untangled (1303). Seriously? At the same time we hear nothing of Albert's inner feelings. It felt biased at best, genderist at worst.

I wanted to like this and view it favorably, but I can't in good conscience approve of such a young-adult, even 'Harlequin romance' version of a woman who stood out in her own time as different for a variety of reasons. This was a woman who was strong, self-possessed, competent, and dedicated to her chosen aims, whether academic or family. I think her life is remarkable and it think it should have been much better served than it was here - or at least than it was in the first sixty percent!