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Sunday, November 20, 2016

The Other Einstein---A Novel About Einstein's First Wife

I received my copy of The Other Einstein by Marie Benedict from Net GalleyOn Flying High Reviews, I'm participating in the blog tour.  On this blog, I'm expanding on that review. So now I'm wading into the really interesting controversy surrounding Einstein's first wife.


Mileva Marić wanted to be a physicist when she was young. She was admitted to Zurich Polytechnic to study physics and mathematics with two strikes against her.  The first was being a woman in a very male world.  The second was being from Serbia which was considered a cultural backwater in Western Europe.   I am citing facts at this point. There is a Wikipedia article dealing with Mileva .   If you want to see how much about that article is in dispute look at the Talk section.  There has been an editing war over this article.   Both sides are absolutely certain about things that can't be known with absolute certainty.

This is what is not in dispute.  Mileva met Einstein at Zurich Polytechnic where they were both students.  They fell in love and she became pregnant.  She had to drop out of school without finishing her degree, and they married.   This is a sad story, and it has happened to a great many women.  She never realized her dreams.

Historical fiction deals with what isn't part of the historical record.   How did Einstein treat his wife when they weren't in public?   Did Mileva contribute to Einstein's scientific work?   These are questions that are open to speculation.   No one can really claim to know the truth about them.  Marie Benedict has as much right to an opinion as anyone else.   She did the research and came to a conclusion that isn't at all palatable for supporters of Albert Einstein.  Some sources say that he was verbally abusive toward Mileva in public, and that he called her ugly.  Below is a public domain photo of Mileva that I found on Wikipedia.  You be the judge.


  It's said that Einstein burned out early because he never did any great work after he developed the theory of relativity and published it in 1905.   Could his estrangement from Mileva be the reason why he no longer produced any other brilliant new theory?  I don't know, but I'm willing to entertain the possibility.

Benedict's version of Mileva isn't a feminist icon.   She made choices that I wouldn't have made in her circumstances.   In fact, Marie Curie appears briefly in this novel.   This great woman scientist tells Mileva that the only differences between them are the choices they made and the men they married.   Madame Curie's husband dedicated his life to supporting her career.   Benedict portrays Einstein as having deliberately undermined Mileva.  I wanted  her Mileva to be stronger.

There's a Serbian word that applies.   While I was researching this review, I remembered that fantasy writer Alma Alexander, who wrote several novels that I loved, is also a Serbian.  So I did a detour and ran a search on Alma Alexander's blog  for references to Serbia.   I found the word "inat".  She said that it could be translated as stubborn, but it's in a whole different order beyond stubborn.  Given the circumstances in which Mileva found herself, she needed to be more than stubborn.  I was waiting for her to find her inat.

I wanted to comment on Benedict's portrayal of Albert Einstein.   I noticed that he was repeating phrases and I didn't think they were a response to what Mileva said or did.   My theory is that these were phrases he heard from his own father and that he was seeing his parents when he spoke them.   He had become his father and Mileva had become his mother in Einstein's mind.  He was replicating the relationship between his parents.  He may not have realized that he was doing  this on a conscious level.   This is how patterns of abuse repeat themselves.   I thought that this depiction of Einstein's behavior showed insight into this syndrome and allowed me to understand his motivations.

A number of reviewers believe that  Benedict's Mileva was a product of her historical environment and the dominant culture.   The truth is that the 21st century isn't that much kinder to women.   Any woman who becomes involved in a relationship with a man in the same field may still face the same problems.   She may be ignored and her work may go uncredited. Then like Benedict's Mileva, she may be shoved out of her field while her significant other or husband is lionized.  This is why this book has significance even if the real Mileva wasn't a scientific genius.   It could be a wake up call to young woman readers who may be on the verge of making a terrible mistake that could destroy their future careers.

For me, the value of The Other Einstein is learning of Mileva Marić's existence.  Whatever the truth might be about her, she deserves to be known rather than buried in obscurity.   Now anyone who has read this book can examine what is known about her, and make their own decisions about what they believe concerning the issues that Benedict has raised.


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