Since I’ve started this book blog I’ve delved more into genres of literature that I previously didn’t tend to read – especially thrillers and historical fiction. When I first saw The Other Einstein on Net Galley I was interested in reading it to continue my exploration of historical fiction, but also interested in learning more about the shadowy figure of Albert Einstein’s first wife Mileva Maric, which most people probably haven’t given a second thought to.
Einstein is a larger than life historical and scientific persona, and when I picture him it’s as an elderly ‘mad-scientist’ type with the poofy white hair and glasses. I never really thought of what his life as a young man must have been like and what kind of lover and husband he might have been. I think that The Other Einstein provides a fictionalized but plausible account of Albert and Mileva’s relationship in which Mileva’s portrayal as a strong but downtrodden woman feels authentic and contemporary in its frustration.
The Other Einstein by Marie Benedict
Published: October 18th 2016
Mileva Maric was raised to believe that she could achieve the impossible for the time, become a physics professor despite being a woman. Her father inculcated in her the importance of believing in her talents and of focusing on her studies. When Mileva travels to Zurich to study physics at the Polytechnic University, she is determined to not lose sight of her ultimate goal and not allow distractions to get in her way. A young man named Albert Einstein soon foils her plans, however, with his mop of brown hair and insistence in spending time with her.
Mileva eventually falls to Albert’s advances and to his assurance that he will treat her as an intellectual equal, working together with her in making the scientific discoveries they both seek. Reality turns out to be quite different however, and Mileva soon has reason to regret her trust in Albert.
What I Liked
Mileva is portrayed as a complex character throughout the novel who shifts from strength to weakness, from honesty to secretiveness, from love to hatred as it is only human to do through the changing circumstances of life. Benedict realistically captures the difficulties Mileva faces due to her unusual intelligence and her at the time unconventional desire to make a career for herself in the sciences. Her story was inspiring despite its hardships, as it showed a kind woman and loving mother struggling for her independence and for the right to be viewed as an intellectual equal to the men around her.
Before reading this novel I had heard that Albert Einstein was essentially demonized in it, and I was wary of whether his portrayal would seem not just fictionalized but unrealistic and far-fetched. I have to say that though Benedict portrays Albert as ego-maniacal and selfish, it did feel like a plausible characterization of the man. We all know that fame and accolades can easily go to people’s heads and it’s not unlikely that Albert could have turned into a bit of a monster once he started to see his theories recognized and rewarded by the world at large.
Though there are limited artifacts that can provide clues to the true nature of Albert Einstein and his wife Mileva’s relationship, the materials that are available and that Benedict relied on for her retelling give it credence. I was convinced that though Albert may have been an unusually gifted scientist, he was actually a pretty horrible husband and father. I still enjoyed reading about Albert and Mileva’s early love and courtship – Benedict was very successful in building up the first few years of their relationship as loving and supportive, which only made it more devastating to watch them hit difficulties later in the novel.
Benedict’s ultimate message is definitely a reflection on the lack of agency that women had in the past, trapped by marriages that they could not abandon due to being unable to develop their own economic independence and also due to the stigma attached to divorce. I think the message is unfortunately still very relevant today, though obviously to a lesser degree. Children can still be a big impediment to women being able to pursue their careers to the fullest and many still struggle to leave unhappy marriages to due financial strictures. Though this was a historical novel – it definitely felt contemporary and relatable in its themes.
What I Didn’t Like
As I said above, I felt that Albert Einstein’s character was believable in the novel. However, I found myself wishing for more of a look into Albert’s feelings, especially towards the end of the story. It’s true that the reader experiences Albert’s coldness in the same way in which Mileva does in the later years of their marriage – like Mileva we are unable to access Albert’s thoughts and feelings. Still, I guess it was natural for me to wish I could understand Albert’s attitude and actions better, or even the justifications he made to himself in his mind, the same way that Mileva probably wished she had better insight into his thought-process.
A nuanced and well-written historical novel that feels relevant to modern times in its portrayal of a woman who struggles to be accepted in a technical field and who sees her talents subsumed to those of her husband.
Have you read The Other Einstein? What did you think? Leave your opinion in the comments!
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