THE OTHER EINSTEIN
By: Marie Benedict
Narrator: Mozhan Marno
Penguin Random House Audio/Random House Audio
Genre: Fiction – Historical
Release Date: October 18, 2016
8 Hours and 30 Minutes
I voluntarily reviewed an advance readers copy of this book for review, but without obligation. No remuneration was exchanged and all opinions presented herein are my own except as noted.
In the tradition of The Paris Wife and Mrs. Poe, The Other Einstein offers us a window into a brilliant, fascinating woman whose light was lost in Einstein’s enormous shadow. This is the story of Einstein’s wife, a brilliant physicist in her own right, whose contribution to the special theory of relativity is hotly debated and may have been inspired by her own profound and very personal insight.
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.
I am married to a physicist, and was also educated as a scientist, so this book was of interest to me.
It explores the social norms for women, particularly as they applied to career, education and marriage, at the end of the Victorian era and into the first two decades of the twentieth century.
Einstein is highly regarded for his brilliance and theoretical understanding of the physical universe. But, there is some controversy in regards to how much of his brilliant theorizing were his alone and how much were those of his first wife (https://www.technologyreview.com/s/427621/did-einsteins-first-wife-secretly-coauthor-his-1905-relativity-paper/), Mileva Marić, the subject of this historical fiction. Of course the degree to which any relationship can be understood via epistolary correspondence is limited and therefore, the theories about Mileva’s intellect and contribution vary. We do know the couple divorce and he ceded any monies from a future Nobel prize to her.
An article in the NYT in 1996 shares this passage in a letter of demands from Albert to Mileva from the end of their marriage:
The stipulations were as cold and precise as any of his mathematical equations. In July 1914, Albert Einstein wrote to his first wife, Mileva Maric, the mother of his two sons, laying down a series of conditions under which he would agree to continue their marriage:
”A. You will see to it (1) that my clothes and linen are kept in order, (2) that I am served three regular meals a day in my room. B. You will renounce all personal relations with me, except when these are required to keep up social appearances.” And: ”You will expect no affection from me . . . You must leave my bedroom or study at once without protesting when I ask you to.”
The author takes this idea and runs with it. How far she runs, given the evidence, is either too far or not far enough depending on which conclusions you want to make. Was he any more or less egotistical and misogynistic than any other intellectual man of the period? Was she smarter than him, better able to take some of his ideas and put them into words for articles on which her name never appeared? Did this potential disparity sour their relationship and/or did he take advantage of the social position allowed me to use her brilliance to affect his own standing in the scientific community?
Aside from any further delving into the reality of the relationship, and Mileva’s contributions to the theories which changed our understanding of the physical world, the novel paints a dark picture of Albert Einstein. I ended up disliking him immensely and, through Mileva’s voice, felt the sad limitations society placed on women of the period.
By the end of the book I seriously disliked him. Whether or not it is justified I now think of him as a dick.
The problem with the story is that through being based in a set of letters which have been scrutinized by several (probably dozens of) scholars, the book can only dance around the facts of the relationship and life of the couple, and without more knowledge about Mileva can only guess at her life and character.
As such it becomes a little boring and mired in conjecture based on the letters and how the letters made the author feel about the “great man” in the couple.
The narrator, in giving voice to Mileva’s character often sounded bored; but perhaps this is the character’s feeling of being put upon, her limited choices, and her depression. The problem of the period was that most women would have required a strong personality to rise above the societal norms to get credit and recognition.
It was not a story that left me feeling happy, nor that Mileva was ultimately rewarded in some way, by the end. I can’t really say I enjoyed the sad and tragic tale but it presented a different side of the life of Albert Einstein who in the rest of my life has always been solely a brilliant man and who I therefore assumed was a man of honor. I have made this assumption about people of genius or power before in my life only to disappointed. I think it showed me again that all people are complex and that even the brilliant can be flawed in character.