The Other Einstein, by Marie Benedict

Eight stars

After being asked by a friend to read Marie Benedict’s novel about the wife of Albert Einstein, I was eager to give it a try. While no Einstein expert, having read only a few pieces about the scientist, I am always up to learn a little something. Benedict offers an interesting mix of fact and fiction in this succinct piece, which is sure to entertain and educate the reader in equal measure. Mileva “Mitza” Marić made a name for herself, relying on some less stringent admission rules to secure a spot into a Swiss university, where she studied and excelled in Mathematics and Physics. While other men in her class scoffed at her presence, one Albert Einstein took a shining to her. Marić willingly spent time with Einstein, happy to help anyone who would treat her as an equal. A Serbian by birth, Marić found herself stuck in an interesting family dynamic; a mother who wanted her to accept her role as a woman and a father who, aware of a physical anomaly, wanted her to succeed in academics. Marić refused to accept that she would forever be a spinster and welcomed Einstein’s romantic interest, as long as it did not impede her academic pursuits. Einstein and Marić continued to work together, building their passion for science and one another through the years. The tides seemed to change when Marić bore their first child, Lieserl. While Marić was hidden away for the birth and a few months afterwards, Einstein pursued gainful employment, all but ignoring his family. Benedict depicts this strain in the relationship throughout, never more poignantly than explaining how Einstein worked and his wife tended to their daughter, while still holding onto a passion for the world of physics. Tragedy befell the family such that the shattered pieces of their foundation could not be properly assembled again, which proved to be a significant strain on them, though Albert and Mitza continued to work through problems of relativity and other topics of theoretical physics. Expanding on their family, the Einsteins found themselves loving their burgeoning brood, though their true passion remained physics. That said, Albert always stood in the limelight, while Mitza slaved away and presented key theories for discussion, only later expounded upon by Albert when he had already made a name for himself. In a story so poignantly titled, Benedict argues effectively that Mileva Marić Einstein may have been the brains behind her husband’s numerous discoveries, in an era where women were seen as less apt and capable. Recommended for those who enjoy learning a great deal during their fiction reading, I can see Benedict has a great handle on the topic and how to present it effectively to readers.

Bendict does well to capture the reader’s attention throughout this book, straddling the line between telling a story and recounting the life of a lesser-known historical figure. While it is impossible to deny that Mileva Marić Einstein remained hidden behind her husband’s shadow, one can hope that this book will help dispel the idea that she was solely a supportive spouse. Benedict depicts Madam Einstein as being dedicated to her interests, particularly physics, letting no one and nothing stand in her way. While she may have been raised at a time when she was seen as a second-class citizen, she never let her passion die out, no matter who stood in her way, Benedict portrays this effectively throughout the piece, tossing in some interesting hurdles outside her being a woman. The courting time between the two protagonists is quite heartfelt and Madam Einstein seems not only shocked that a man might love her, but also leery about giving up all her academic opportunities for a man. When women did not usually stand on their own, Mileva Marić broke the mold and strived to be all she could. Strains in the relationship appear throughout the latter portion of the book, particularly as Benedict portrays Albert as too focussed on his work. Can he be faulted for this? In one sense, surely, for he chooses not to spend it with his family and keeps himself occupied with his work and friendships with other men. While no excuse, one must consider that this was a time when ‘hands-on’ fatherhood would not have been common, so Einstein might not have thought to spend time at home or with his family. Still, Benedict depicts him, as well as some of the other male characters found throughout the narrative, to be aloof and disinterested in life before them. The story worked very well, picking up on key elements of Marić’s life before she married Einstein, with the ongoing thread that she did not want her life’s work to be forgotten or attributed solely to her husband. Benedict using powerful descriptions to portray this, leaving the reader to decide for themselves how to synthesise this information. It not only tells a story of the woman behind her husband, but also seeks to develop the argument that Albert Einstein may not have been the sole thinker in that household to churn out groundbreaking ideas. A wonderfully educational piece that offers a punch for the attentive reader. Easy to digest and comprehend without being flighty or flowery.

Kudos, Madam Benedict, for a great piece of fiction. I’ll have to keep my eyes open to see what else you have that might be of interest.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: