Dec 7, 2017

Love of Reading November BOTM \\ The Other Einstein by Marie Benedict

NOTE  I recently joined a Goodreads group in which a new book is chosen every month. I thought it would be a fun idea (for myself) to answer the discussion questions, instead of writing a review, on the book we read each month here on my blog. That way I can share my thoughts on it, but also discuss it with others across a few platforms without having to write two things. These posts may contain spoilers. Proceed with caution. 

Synopsis: A vivid and mesmerizing novel about the extraordinary woman who married and worked with one of the greatest scientists in history.

What secrets may have lurked in the shadows of Albert Einstein’s fame? His first wife, Mileva “Mitza” Marić, was more than the devoted mother of their three children—she was also a brilliant physicist in her own right, and her contributions to the special theory of relativity have been hotly debated for more than a century.

In 1896, the extraordinarily gifted Mileva is the only woman studying physics at an elite school in Zürich. There, she falls for charismatic fellow student Albert Einstein, who promises to treat her as an equal in both love and science. But as Albert’s fame grows, so too does Mileva’s worry that her light will be lost in her husband’s shadow forever.

A literary historical in the tradition of The Paris Wife and Mrs. Poe, The Other Einstein reveals a complicated partnership that is as fascinating as it is troubling. 

Let me admit that I knew next to nothing about Albert Einstein before reading this. Did I know who he was and what he was famous for? Of course. But that's where my knowledge on him ended. I never focused on any aspect in him during school, and never read another book, fiction or not, of his life in all my years of reading. So what did I expect? I wasn't sure, but it wasn't the tragic, and truly heartbreaking story of Einstein's first wife.

Little is known about Albert and Mileva's lives, so there is a lot of speculation. The facts are that they did meet in school and fall in love. They did become pregnant before they married, and their daughter possibly passed away or was adopted in her early life. They did marry later and have two boys, and further on, Einstein did have an affair with his cousin Elsa, whom he married and lived with the rest of their lives together. So, the question remains on how their marital life really was behind closed doors? And did Mileva contribute to Einstein's success more than he ever admitted? It's possible.

I can say that my dislike for him grew as I read more about their story in The Other Einstein. Of course, I had to remind myself that we have no way of really knowing if their relationship was like this book details. But it's possible. And that is enough for me to think that Einstein may not have been the genius we have been taught of all these years. Yes, there is no denying that he was a brilliant man, but was it all his own work on relativity? Maybe not.

The story captivated me from beginning to end, and yes, it is a simple story of a very smart woman who gave up a lot for the man she loved, and for a family life that she wasn't hoping for. But it is so much more. It is a story of courage, and strength. It is not about a brave, feminist icon, but about a woman who struggles like woman do today, in the shadow of a man. There is no denying that then and now, women are still a marginalized group. This book shows the heartbreaking story of another woman who endures a life where she is treated poorly by the men she allows to control it.

Discussion Questions

1. Discuss the various ways that gender affects the characters in this novel. Do you think gender would influence Mileva’s life in the same way if she lived today?

Yes, definitely. That's the simple answer, but today, I think she would have to give up something in order to live the life she wanted.

Many people discuss how it's difficult to raise a family and have a career, and yes, it's possible to do both. Most women today do it, and are happily enjoying a fulfilling career and also, having a family life. But is it difficult? Yes, of course. Do they have to sacrifice time and sleep in order to get work done, or make sure to spend time with their children? Or spend sick hours caring for a child, or going to a recital, or spend weekends not resting because with children, do you really rest? I can't answer any of these questions with true knowledge of knowing what it's like.

I spent many years in college, taking my time, and lazying about. Now I have a career. I'm almost 30 years old and I'm not married. I don't have children. And according to society, I'm falling behind. Do I regret any of this? Fuck no. I am 100% happy with the choices I've made, but will I ever really make time for a family? Who knows.

But if Mileva was in today's world, and her life would've taken on the same outcomes as it did today, I think she would've still found herself in the same situation. Maybe she would've left Einstein sooner, maybe she wouldn't have cared about divorce because it is so common, but yes, I think she would've sacrificed some part of her career or schooling in order to have her children.

2. This novel can be seen as quest for understanding, a search for the divine in the natural order of the world. How does the study of math and physics become this quest for Albert and Mileva? Are they, either separately or together, successful in their crusade? Does unmuzzling life’s mysteries have disparate meanings to them?

3. Betrayal is a recurrent motif in the book and an unfortunate reality in Mileva’s life. What forms of betrayal does she experience? How does her reaction to those betrayals propel the story forward, for better or worse? Has Mileva engaged in betrayal herself?

Not only does Einstein betray Mileva as a husband (yes, he does have an affair that is publicly known about,) he also betrays her as a partner in the scientific world. Mileva contributed to so much of his work, yet Albert never gave her credit for it. After countless excuses to why he couldn't, eventually he completely ignores any contributions. To her face. It propelled the story to the conclusion we could've expected for the end, a failing marriage and lack of Einstein to really come up with any more ideas on his own later in life.

Mileva betrayed herself, yes. I wanted to scream at her to leave Albert, to find her own path. I wanted her to stop following after him, even when she wanted nothing more than to enjoy a happy life with him and a shared companionship in their work. I knew from the beginning that it wouldn't work out, and even though I secretly hoped that it would, I knew that it was her love for him that blinded her for so long.

4. Discuss the setting of the book, a world on the brink of astounding scientific discoveries, political upheaval, and ultimately horrible World War I atrocities. Does this historical setting affect the characters? What role, if any, does it play in shaping their lives?

5. On several occasions throughout the novel, the characters undergo metamorphoses. What are Mileva’s changes, and what instigates them? Do some of them frustrate you or take too long? Does Albert change during the course of the novel? If so, how would you describe his evolution?

The one change that did frustrate me for taking so long was Mileva being her true self, which happens towards the end of the book. Like her friend Helene asked her to, she needed to find her old self and get away from Albert. For the sake of her happiness, and her children, and everything she had worked to become when she first started at the Polytechnic. It took her years to see this and it was frustrating. Yet, understandable because of her situation.

Albert also becomes his true self as the novel progresses. His selfishness becomes more apparent as the years go on, and his distaste for the home life he feels he's stuck with made me wanna smack him.

6. Albert Einstein is arguably one of the most famous figures of the twentieth century, but The Other Einstein shares a story about him that you might not have otherwise heard. Did this novel change your perception of him, or about the stories we are told regarding other women in history? 

Yes, and I have stated this rather clearly in my thoughts above.

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