Thanks to NetGalley and to Sourcebooks Landmark for offering me an ARC copy of the book.
We’ve all heard the saying: ‘Behind every great man there’s a great woman’ in its many different versions. It’s true that for centuries men (or many men of the wealthy classes with access to education) could dedicate themselves to artistic, scientific or business pursuits because the everyday things were taken care of by their wives or other women in their lives (mothers, relatives, partners…) As Virginia Wolf wrote in ‘A Room of One’s Own’ women had a harder time of it, as they were expected to take care of the house, family, and ensure that their husbands came back to a place where they would be looked after and tended too. Unless women were independently wealthy and could count on the support (financial, emotional and practical) of the men in their lives, it was very hard, if not impossible, to pursue a career in the arts or the sciences.
Mary Benedict’s book explores the life of Mitza Maric, who would later become Einstein’s first wife, from the time of her arrival in Zurich (as one of only a few female students at the university) to the time when she separates from her husband. Maric is an intriguing figure (and I must admit I hadn’t read anything about her before) and an inspiring one, as she had to go against the odds (being a woman at a time were very few women could study at university, suffering from hip dysplasia, that left her with a limp and difficulty in undertaking certain physical tasks) and managed to study and be respected for her knowledge of Physics and Maths.
The book is written in the first person, and we get a close look at Maric´s thoughts, emotions and doubts. The early part of the book is a very good read, with descriptions of the social mores of the era, Mitza’s family, the development of her friendship with the other female students at the lodgings, the intellectual atmosphere and café society of that historical period, and of course, Mr Einstein, whom he meets at University. Mitza believed (like her parents) that due to her physical disability she would never marry, and lived resigned to the idea, having decided to dedicate her life to her research, studies and the academic life she craved. And then… Einstein arrives.
The Einstein depicted by the book is a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde character. He’s friendly, humorous and charming, and also, of course, a brilliant scientist, but can be selfish, egotistical and cares nothing for anybody who is not himself. We see more of the first Einstein at the beginning of the relationship, through their interaction, walks, scientific discussions… Einstein opens the world for Mitza, and if she had been enjoying the company of the other girls, she later neglects them for the world of scientific discussion among men, where she gains entry thanks to Einstein.
When, after much hesitation, Mitza decides to visit Einstein and spend a few days with him in Lake Como, the two of them alone, the book becomes more melodramatic and things start going very wrong. Mitza gets pregnant, Einstein keeps making excuses not to get married yet, and resentment sets in. If I mentioned that Einstein is a Jekyll and Hyde character, Mitza, who was always shy but determined and stubborn, also changes; she becomes sad, hesitant, and she seems unable to follow her own path. In the book, there is much internal discussion and debate, as on the one hand she does not like Einstein’s behaviour, but on the other, she tries to see things from her mother’s point of view and do what’s right for the child.
As some reviewers have noted (and the writer acknowledges in her notes at the back of the book), it’s a fact that they had a daughter out of wedlock, but it’s not clear what happened to her, and that makes the later part of the book, at least for me, stand on shakier grounds. That is always a difficulty with historical fiction, whereby to flesh out the story authors must make decisions, interpreting events and sometimes filling in gaps. In some cases, this is more successful than others, and it might also depend on the reader and their ability to suspend disbelief.
The author comes up with an explanation for the possible origin of the theory of relativity, closely linked to Mitza’s faith (and I know there have been debate as to how much Einstein’s wife contributed to it, and she definitely did contribute, although most likely not as much as is suggested in the book) that hinges around a dramatic event affecting their daughter, the problem being (from a historical point of view) that there’s no evidence it ever took place. That event, as depicted in the text, has a major impact in later parts of the novel and seems to underline all of the later difficulties the couple has, although Einstein’s behaviour, his reluctance to include his wife’s name in any of the articles or patents, the time he spends away, and his infidelities don’t help.
I found it difficult to reconcile the woman of the beginning of the book with the beaten down character of the later part of the book, although there are some brief flashes of her former self, like when she converses with Marie Curie. Although there is much self-justification for her continuing to live with Einstein given the circumstances (she is doing it for the children, she still hopes he will seek her ideas and collaboration and they’ll end up working together), one wonders how the strong and determined woman of the beginning can end up tolerating such a frustrating life (especially once Albert becomes well known and their financial difficulties end). There is also no evidence that she sought to rekindle her career once she was no longer with Einstein, and one can’t help but wonder if perhaps their relationship, at least early on, was also a source of inspiration for her too.
I enjoyed getting to know a bit more about Mitza Maric, and in particular about the era and the difficulties women had to face then, although I would have preferred to be more aware of where the facts ended and author creativity started whilst reading the book, as I was never sure if some of the inconsistencies within the characters were due to their own experiences and circumstances, or to the reimagining of some parts of the story, that perhaps ends up transforming it into a more typical narrative of the woman whose ambitions and future die due to marriage, children and a less than enlightened husband. (It reminded me at times of Revolution Road, although in this instance both of the characters are talented, whilst there…) The author provides sources for further reading and research at the end that will prove invaluable to those interested in digging further.
In sum this book highlights the figure of a woman worth knowing better; it can work as the starting point for further research and fascinating discussions, and it is eminently readable. People looking for specific scientific information or accurate personal facts might need to consult other books as this is definitely a fictionalisation.