Absolutely fascinating, The Other Einstein is such a contrast to the usual portrayal of the man we have come to know so well as the bohemian scientist Albert Einstein. It is often said that behind every successful man is a strong woman propping him up, but in this instance it’s more of a case of providing him with the necessary mathematical theory required to reach Nobel prize status! The Other Einstein is a story about Albert’s first wife, the equally talented physicist Mileva Maric. Whilst the book is fiction, the concept of how Albert’s wife may have been a contributing factor behind the theory of relatively is indeed real and can be found in letters that still exist (http://einsteinpapers.press.princeton.edu).
In this story, Mileva develops her own voice. Born in Serbia with a foot deformity, nothing much is ever expected from Mileva’s future. However, what is clear very early on in Mileva’s life, is that she is extremely clever and her father nurtures this intelligence encouraging her to follow her passion for physics. She therefore finds herself with a position at the highly commendable polytechnic in the more forward thinking city of Zurich. But, this is the end of the nineteenth century and it is still not deemed appropriate for women to enter such professional institutions and Mileva, whilst only one of a handful of women breaking into the university at this time, is the only female physicist on her course. It is here in this class where Mileva captures the attention of a wacky young man and after a rocky start they eventually become acquaintances. That man is a young Albert Einstein.
However, Mileva has made a pact with a fellow group of female students that they will not divert into relationships and become mundane housewives. Mileva and her friends are determined to become the generation of professional women who will be taken seriously as academics in their own right for each of them believe that this respect is not forthcoming when a woman submits herself to being somebody’s wife. Mileva is determined to concentrate on her lifelong passion, physics, but Albert becomes a constant distraction and despite all her attempts to thwart his advances, she eventually finds herself falling for his intellect, charm and bohemian ways.
Convinced they can become equals, and reassured by Albert that her status as a professional will only increase once they get married, Mileva finally gives into her feelings. Yet almost immediately things start to go wrong and it appears that Albert Einstein is not all the man she thought him to be. When he decides to discredit her work on his most famous papers by removing her name unknowingly before print, Mileva truly does begin to feel like the drudged mundane housewife she promised herself and her father that she would never become, in short; she feels worthless.
The Other Einstein, though part fiction, feels genuinely honest in its portrayal and with such a strong viewpoint it becomes hard to separate fact from fiction and the lines become quickly blurred. I have to say my opinion of Albert as a human being is somewhat diminished by this read. At various points I did find myself eye-rolling at Mileva’s constant refusals to leave the man after a few nasty incidents but I had to keep reminding myself that this was a different time and therefore a different era. Yet that still doesn’t stem the feeling of waste that pervades the book, the waste of the mind of a talented young woman who could have given the world so much more had she not met Einstein and consequently you wonder just how different things may have been had they never crossed paths. Nevertheless, the story doesn’t discredit what Albert did achieve but what it does do is encourage a hunger to find out more about the truth behind the discovery, in particular the letters in question that fuelled Marie Benedict to tell this story.
What I also loved about The Other Einstein was the immediate bond between the group of girls who all felt ostracised from society in one way or another, and yet this was what brought them all together as friends. In some aspects, their behaviour and choices they made were strongly feminist but it isn’t portrayed as a case of getting one over on their male counterparts and in the meantime making themselves out to be the more inferior sex, but neither did they just accept their lot. They were there to learn about their specialist field and that’s what they did without the need to moan about their lot, and believe me they had more than most to moan about! I also found it intriguing how the book is almost spilt into two different parts emotionally; the first part, you find yourself routing for Mileva and Albert’s friendship to develop into so much more because you feel convinced that this will be a meeting of minds and could become something bigger than either one of them. After all, when Mileva takes a break from the polytechnic to study elsewhere, Einstein makes a huge number of notes on the subjects and lectures that she has missed so she will not miss out on anything! You really do believe it when he says that he will promise her equality in love and work. However, there is then a dramatic shift and it turns out that once he has Mileva where he wants her, in the home performing her womanly duties, this promise is jeopardised and once the fame kicks in, it is well and truly broken. The betrayal is absolutely gutting and you really do wonder how this woman was able to carry on living under the same roof as the man for the length of time that she did.
Highly recommendable and a superb read, this is definitely a book which forces you to reconsider everything you thought you knew about one of the world’s most famous scientists, whilst introducing you to another scientist who is highly deserving of the attention.
I received this book for review from the wonderful people at NetGalley.