Releases October 18, 2016
My rating: 4 out of 5
*I received a free advance copy in exchange for an honest review.
The Short Of It:
I enjoyed this woman-behind-the-man look at Albert Einstein's first wife, a gifted physicist herself, who may have had much more influence on Einstein's work than we know.
The Long Of It:
I read a lot of historical fiction, and a couple times a year I come across a book that reminds me just how lucky I am to be a woman living in the 21st century. I'm not sure how accurate the portrayal of Einstein as a rather terrible jerk is, but I do know that his remarkable wife would've been infinitely more likely to flourish if she'd been born in a later era.
"The Other Einstein" is a based-in-fact fictional portrait of Albert Einstein's first wife, Mileva Maric. She was born in Serbia in 1875, a time when girls were expected to get married, bear children and keep house -- not excel at science and mathematics. Universities were almost exclusively men's domain, and Mileva was the only woman in the physics program when she began her degree in Switzerland. There she met charismatic Albert Einstein -- the only classmate who would give her the time of day, despite her gender -- and at Albert's persistence their friendship eventually evolved into romance.
Mileva was an utterly brilliant physicist -- at least, according to the author -- and the idea that she played a role in the development of the theory of relativity has been under debate for years, but her name is not the one gracing the Nobel Prize or the history books. Benedict attempts to fill in the blanks in Mileva's story; how did a physics genius become a child-rearing housewife whose days were completely devoid of science?
I instantly fell in love with Mileva. She's full of perseverance and never let the copious obstacles to her education get in her way -- and she's kind, thoughtful and so very intelligent. My favorite part of the book was when she first arrives in Switzerland for university and moves into a boarding house with three other college women -- who become her first-ever friends. Benedict richly describes the atmosphere of late 1800s Zurich: the university, the coffee houses where intellectuals would gather for intense discussions, and the stunning mountains and forests surrounding the city where Mileva and her friends enjoy hiking.
But the joyful happiness and intellectual stimulation of Mileva's first years in Zurich are not to last -- and the author places the blame for this solely with Albert Einstein. She writes him as a chauvinist, a manipulator, a thief of ideas, a lazy slob, a neglectful husband and father, a man completely self-interested and an adulterer. I don't know much about Einstein's personal life and I do hope these traits are exaggerated for the story -- but knowing the time period I wouldn't be surprised if the portrait Benedict paints is mostly accurate. In the book, Mileva suffers horribly because of Albert; tragedy after tragedy befalls her, and worst of all, Albert sees to it that she gradually becomes isolated from the world of physics she loves so very much. The story was difficult to read at times, but I cheered when Mileva finally got herself out of the cruel and terrible hole Albert had shoved her in.
Even though parts of the book made me so angry I wanted to chuck it at the wall, I still really enjoyed this peek at Mileva, a little-known woman who had so much potential -- and who could possibly, as the author posits, have contributed much more than we will ever know to her volatile husband's work. Readers who enjoyed "The Paris Wife" by Paula McLain and "The Atomic Weight of Love" by Elizabeth J. Church should find this an interesting read.