There is an old saying that behind every successful man there is a strong woman. In The Other Einstein, author Marie Benedict tells the story of Mileva Maric´, Albert Einstein’s first wife, and describes the part she may have played in advancing some of the most important theories in 20th century physics. Although understanding Maric appears as the book’s focus, Benedict’s portrayal of science and academia in Western Europe in the 1920s and 30s is the engine that keeps the story moving forward.
As the book opens, Mileva Maric reminds the reader of a Cinderella character. Her brilliance is undervalued in a society that would prefer her to be pretty, where her physical disability and plainness marks her out for a lifetime of obscurity as an old maid. Instead of a fairy godmother, Mileva has a father who sees her intelligence, and believes that furthering her education, otherwise widely frowned upon for a woman, can change her fate, give her a future. But even with a coach ride to Zurich, there is a clear sense of foreboding that pervades Mileva’s rise, the knowledge that Mileva and Einstein will not share a happy ending.
Benedict’s unflinching description of the personal and societal challenges her characters face provides the necessary backdrop for their emotional depth. Benedict allows Mileva to feel every triumph, every slight, every moment of joy and despair that her relationship with Einstein, as well as her family, academic, and social environment provide. From the opening pages where she hesitates, afraid to open the door to the university classroom, to the grief when she realizes that her partnership with Einstein is not what she hoped it would become, Benedict does not shy away from expressing her clarity of feeling. The most striking example of Benedict’s skill as a writer of emotion is the meeting between Mileva and Marie Curie. Mileva sees in Marie the mirror of the future she had dreamed for herself. Mileva believes that Marie has achieved her happily ever after. And it hurts. The pain of unrealized potential, where genius is denounced because it is female, Eastern European, Jewish, disabled, disorganized, or just different – Benedict shows us the true cost of exclusion.
Although The Other Einstein references advanced mathematics and physics, the theories are not belabored, and readers are given just enough information to understand their importance. This makes the material approachable for readers with limited math and science backgrounds, as the narrative does not get bogged down in the details of the calculations. On the other hand, readers with some expertise in these subjects may be left yearning for more complexity. Even so, there is plenty of material for the armchair historian and biographer, and the stories of women scientists too often disappear into obscurity. Benedict’s powerful if somewhat dark account should ensure that Mileva Maric’s story is not erased.