Book Review for “Her Hidden Genius” by Marie Benedict.
Summary: “Rosalind Franklin has always been an outsider―brilliant, but different. Whether working at the laboratory she adored in Paris or toiling at a university in London, she feels closest to the science, those unchanging laws of physics and chemistry that guide her experiments. When she is assigned to work on DNA, she believes she can unearth its secrets. Rosalind knows if she just takes one more X-ray picture―one more after thousands―she can unlock the building blocks of life. Never again will she have to listen to her colleagues complain about her, especially Maurice Wilkins who’d rather conspire about genetics with James Watson and Francis Crick than work alongside her. Then it finally happens―the double helix structure of DNA reveals itself to her with perfect clarity. But what unfolds next, Rosalind could have never predicted.”
Age: Adult; Genres: Literary, Women, Fiction; Settings: Historical; France – Paris, England – London; Other Categories: Novel, Biographical, Science.
When it comes to historical personalities – in particular, women – who made truly significant contributions to the world, but about whom we know very little, Rosalind Franklin seems to be way up high on that list of those about whom we need to learn more. We already know that Benedict specializes in telling the stories of women we may have heard of, but don’t know enough about. So, coming upon a novel about a woman I’d never heard of at all, was the major draw for me to this novel. Interestingly enough, I notice that this is the third of her books dealing with science – the other two are “The Other Einstein” and “The Only Woman in the Room” both of which I really enjoyed. In this novel, however, we get a much closer look at Franklin’s sadly short career, including no small number of details regarding how she carried out her research regarding mapping the structure of DNA.
Granted, some of the descriptions here sounded very technical and, admittedly, I’m mostly ignorant of scientific research. Still, I was able to figure out essentially what Franklin was doing, even though some of the methods here sounded a bit outmoded. Obviously, that makes perfect sense since we’re talking about work that went on just after WWII. In fact, Benedict starts her story here in 1947, and tells Franklin’s story through to her death in 1958. Yes, that’s right; Franklin had only 11 years of a professional career. Considering what she was able to accomplish, we can only imagine what she might have discovered if she hadn’t died so young, and the breakthroughs in medicine that those discoveries might have allowed. I know, we’ve come a long way in the last 65 years, and that became imminently clear when near the end of the novel, Franklin is witness to the Jonas Salk announcement of the Polio vaccine.
This is told absolutely chronologically (thankfully), with only small gaps of in the timeline to skip over lulls in Franklin’s progress. It is also told totally in first person. Well, except for the afterword, which is essentially the author’s notes, and an essential addition to the work. But I bet you’re wondering how Benedict handles Franklin’s death. Well, I’m not going to give any spoilers away here, but I was truly impressed, especially with the poetry of the whole ending of this book. That was in almost stark contrast to the almost clinical feel that Franklin’s story was told up until then. Even so, you really get a feel for Franklin as a tough, single minded woman who knows what she wants.
That’s one of the things that I truly admire about Benedict; she seems able to adjust her literary style to carefully match both the subjects and the eras she’s writing about. For example, if I recall correctly, Benedict’s language in her book about Agatha Christie was more flowery than this, and the one she wrote about Belle da Costa Greene had a more intellectual feel to it. Even her book about Hedy Lamarr had a touch of Hollywood and theater about it. So, it makes sense that this book had an air of detached science. Now, technically speaking, the type of research described here can feel a bit detached, even using a first person POV. This has its advantages in that it fit the character, but I felt a touch distanced from Franklin at the same time. (By the way, I appreciated how Benedict included Franklin’s Jewish heritage in places, which was perfectly understated and wholly accurate.)
This doesn’t mean that I didn’t enjoy this novel, because I certainly did, and I’m proud to have it on my shelf. However, as much as I admired and liked Rosalind, I didn’t totally fall in love with her. True, I did get angry on her behalf when she’s professionally abused by the sexism and misogyny of the times. Still, with how beautifully Benedict ended this novel, I was a touch surprised that it didn’t bring tears to my eyes. Because of all this, I’m very warmly recommending this novel to historical, biographical, women’s fiction lovers, and I think that the most appropriate rating is four and a half out of five stars (it was almost just four, but the luscious ending gave it the extra half star).
Sourcebooks Landmark released “Her Hidden Genius” by Marie Benedict on January 25, 2022 (and October 4, in paperback). This book is available (via the following affiliate links) from Amazon, Blackwell‘s, Foyles, The Book Depository UK and Book Depository US (both with free worldwide delivery), Waterstones, WHSmith, Wordery UK and Wordery US, 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.