Book Review for “The Other Einstein” by Marie Benedict.
Summary: “Mitza Maric has always been a little different from other girls. Most twenty-year-olds are wives by now, not studying physics at an elite Zurich university with only male students trying to outdo her clever calculations. But Mitza is smart enough to know that, for her, math is an easier path than marriage. And then fellow student Albert Einstein takes an interest in her, and the world turns sideways. Theirs becomes a partnership of the mind and of the heart, but there might not be room for more than one genius in a marriage.”
Age: Adult; Genres: Literary, Fiction; Settings: Historical – 1896-1914; Switzerland, Serbia, Croatia, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Germany; Other Categories: Novel, Women, Biographical, Science.
I think there’s some saying out there that says you should never meet your heroes because they’ll only disappoint you – or something like that. that’s the thought that slowly occurred to me the more I read this book. I mean, doesn’t everyone know who Albert Einstein is? Doesn’t everyone know that his name has become a synonym for genius? His Nobel Prizes and the ever-lasting theory of relativity that practically everyone seems to know, made him into a scientific icon that borders on godliness. Even someone like me, who can quote but cannot understand what “E=mc2” means, and what it’s uses are, can appreciate that it was as revolutionary and important to science as Newton’s discovery of gravity.
And yet, here’s a story, that seems very well researched, which certainly puts a damper on that. In fact, it really takes him down a notch or two, both regarding his genius and what type of a man he really was. With Benedict’s debut novel, the focus here is not on the famous man, but on the woman who became his first wife, the Serbian student who studied Physics and Math with him at the Polytechnic, Mileva Maric. Now, there’s historical debate about the extent of Mileva’s contribution to Einstein’s work, and since they’re both dead, we’ll never really know for certain. Therefore, it was reasonable that Benedict decided that if she was going to err about how little or much Mileva’s input led to his theories, she would err on the side of “significant” rather than just being the supportive housewife and mother. I’m guessing that her reasoning was that a woman who worked so hard to study subjects that other women weren’t interested in (when and if they were even allowed to do so), wouldn’t have just tossed all that aside for anyone, even for the man she loved.
In addition, the fairly vague information available about Mileva’s life, before and during her marriage to Einstein, and the knowledge that they separated and divorced, allowed Benedict to make assumptions about their relationship in general. It also allowed Benedict to delve into the birth of her daughter before she married Einstein, and posit an answer to the mystery of what happened to the child, who essentially disappeared. With her own theory, which was based on certain factual, but sketchy clues that she mentions in the author’s notes, the loss of this girl ends up haunting Mileva throughout the novel. Finally, since the most significant part of Mileva’s life took place from her studies at the Polytechnic (where she meets Einstein), and until they separate, Benedict hones in on these parts of Mileva’s life for the bulk of this novel. Undoubtedly, this also allowed Benedict to elaborate on Mileva’s internal struggles, with which she paints a portrait of a woman torn between her wanting to be dedicated to advancing science, and wanting to love this man as his wife.
In this aspect, I think that Benedict did a truly stellar job of telling Mileva’s story, from her personal perspective. Benedict’s using a first-person narrative to do so also worked very well. However, I think in some cases, it also made Mileva into a slightly unreliable narrator, since everything that happens between her and Einstein is colored first by his influence on her, and later by his own ambitions. Obviously, many of the choices that Mileva makes were also swayed by the era in which she lived, and how both society and the world of science treated women during those times. One could almost say that Mileva was a prisoner of her generation, or maybe that she was just born at the wrong time. Mind you, that didn’t stop Madame Curie, who was their contemporary, so it is also possible that she was in a prison of her own making.
Benedict certainly took a very complex woman on for her debut novel, and for that you really have to praise her making Mileva into such a sympathetic character. Yes, we see her flaws, and we want to shake her when she makes decisions that will eventually be detrimental to her, but we also understand her, even when we disagree with her. That is a very commendable way to portray any character, so kudos for that. However, as I started out this review talking about not meeting our heroes, I have to say that I felt a bit… well, betrayed that Benedict made Einstein into such an unlikable person. In fact, by the end of the novel, I almost hated him. Now, it is totally possible that he was as bad as Benedict made him out to be, but still… Einstein! This disturbed me, so although I’m still recommending this book, I’m thinking that four out of five stars is the best rating I can give this novel.
“The Other Einstein” by Marie Benedict is available (via the following affiliate links) from Amazon, The Book Depository UK and US (free worldwide delivery), Foyles, Waterstones, WHSmith, Wordery (UK & US), Walmart (Kobo) US (eBooks and audiobooks), the website eBooks.com, Booksamillion.com, iTunes (iBooks and audiobooks), new or used from Alibris, used from Better World Books (promoting libraries and world literary), as well as from as well as from Bookshop.org and UK.Bookshop (to support independent bookshops, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic) or an IndieBound store near you.