BOOK REVIEW: The Other Einstein by Marie Benedict
Reviewed by Steph O’Connell
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.
You’d be hard pressed to find someone who doesn’t know of Albert Einstein. His name immediately springs to mind at the mention of relativity, and his wild-haired image suggests a certain eccentricity. While viewed as eccentric and at times a little odd, the public perception of Einstein is a positive one, and a book like The Other Einstein can open readers up to a lesser-known part of Einstein’s life.
Accompanying Mileva as she attends the Swiss Federal Polytechnic university, the only girl in the physics and mathematics program, readers are witness to the varying reactions to a woman in what had previously been considered a man’s field.
“You are?” he asked as if he weren’t expecting me, as if he’d never heard of me.
“Miss Mileva Marić, sir.” I prayed my voice didn’t quaver.
Very slowly, Weber consulted his class list. Of course, he knew precisely who I was. Since he served as head of the physics and mathematics program, and give that only four women had ever been admitted before me, I had to petition to him directly to enter the first year of the four-year program, known as Section Six. He had approved my entrance himself! The consultation of the class list was a blatant and calculating move, telegraphing his opinion of me to the rest of the class. It gave them license to follow suit.
Right from the start, one of Mileva’s classmates, Albert Einstein, shows that he is not like the rest. He sees her ideas for the intelligent ones that they are, and doesn’t let the fact that she’s a woman change the way he sees said ideas. As Mileva gets to know him and fall in love, readers can’t help but feel the same. Here is the man who kept and open mind and pushed boundaries in order to make scientific breakthroughs, but we’re reading about him as a young man who derives joy from making a young female scholar smile.
“You have astonished me today, Miss Marić. You are much more than just a brilliant mathematician and physicist. It seems you are a musician and bohemian too.”
His smile was infectious. I could not help but return it.
He stared in amazement. “I do believe that’s the first time I’ve seen you smile. It’s quite fetching. I’d like to steal more of those smiles from your serious little mouth.”
We also get to see the friendships she forms with the other girls attending nearby universities who are staying at the same boarding house.
Tears welled in the corners of my eyes; I was angry at myself. Nothing was worth the disappointment of these girls. They had rekindled by dreams of a fulfilling future, and together, we had fashioned a refuge from the world, were we could be our true intellectual yet sometimes silly selves. Mr. Einstein, for all his insinuation into my life over the past few months, for all the excitement I felt around him, was not deserving.
Other struggles that women faced at the time.
“Your leg seems not to concern you at all. Don’t you ever worry how people perceive you?”
Helene’s heavy brows knitted in confusion. “Why should I? I mean, it’s a nuisance – sometimes I’m a little unsteady on my feet, and I might not be the quickest in the bunch – but why should it affect how others see me?”
“Well, in Serbia, if a woman has a limp, she’s not suitable for marriage.”
Cultural divides and anti-Semitism.
“You don’t look German either. You look Jewish.”
Albert’s eyes narrowed in an angry expression I’d seen only once before, in an argument with professor Weber. “I am Jewish. Is that a problem?”
“Yes. We have no rooms here for Jews.”
And, of course, the progression of Mileva’s relationship with the most well-known Einstein, as it blossoms, and as it falls apart.
Having become attached to Einstein alongside Mileva, readers are bound to feel just as betrayed when things take a turn for the worse.
Benedict draws readers in, building Mileva into a character we can’t help but root for, and bringing up some questions as to the real story behind Einstein’s theories and the kind of person he was.
The latter was probably the hardest for this reader to come to terms with. While I had never done extensive research into Einstein’s personal life myself, this book does challenge the positives, and leave a modern day reader perhaps disliking him. Though, when examined in terms of the time period, and the way that men in general perceived women, his own behaviour isn’t so entirely deplorable as it would be these days.
The physicality of the book is also worth mentioning; the colours of the cover are striking enough already, but the ghost of calculations around the edge of the image are a lovely touch.
This is an engaging story and an interesting (slightly fictionalised) look into a less explored element of Einstein’s life.
About the Author: