Review: The Other Einstein

“Together, we will become the ideal bohemian couple—equal in love and work.”

This was the Big Library Read (sort a national online book club through your local library and Overdrive) in June. It kept popping up as a suggestion every time I logged into Overdrive, so I finally checked it out. (The Big Library Read books are always available as ebooks during their chosen month-no waitlist!) As much as I loved the cover, I kind of prepared myself for a dry read. But wow. This book was such a surprise. It was so interesting and engaging, and really quite scandalous!

I went into this book with a basic knowledge of Albert Einstein. The Other Einstein tells the fictionalized story of Einstein’s first wife, Mileva Maric. Marie Benedict (who also publishes under the name Heather Terrell) has written a wonderful and interesting historical fiction novel about Mileva and her relationship with Albert. While it is fiction, the story is based in truth, and Benedict clearly did a lot of research. Mileva met Albert met while they were both in school at Zurich’s Polytechnic physics program. Mileva’s father had to petition the school to allow her to register, since it was still not the norm for women to go to such advanced programs. Albert is immediately taken with her and has dreams of living a “bohemian” lifestyle together, working and living as true partners. This is not exactly what happens. What follows is the story of not just two extraordinary physicists, but two people who had a real relationship that fell apart.

This feels very much like a stranger in a strange land late. Mileva is navigating a whole new world: women in university, learning about traditionally male subjects. There is a huge learning curve for her, as well as for the men. She not only has to figure out how she fits in to the male-dominated world of physics, but also how she fits into society as a woman, and how those two personas can work together instead of against each other. She did not want to choose just one personality (scholar or wife), and this is still an incredibly relevant topic today. We can all relate to wanting a group of likeminded people to be around, and not just trying to fit in with the mainstream crowd. Mileva worked very hard to have that, and she was not always successful.

This was an unexpectedly perfect summer read, and although it also unexpectedly broke my heart a little, it made me think hard about relationships and gender roles, and how much weight is still placed on those things. And please forgive this one superficial comment, but it was hard to see how much of a jerk Einstein truly was. I still think of him as Walter Matthau in the extremely fictional movie IQ. (And yes, I realize how much that dates me.)

Whether or not the fictionalized parts of The Other Einstein are completely false or loosely based on the truth, Benedict still lets us into the life of a women who is built up and then systematically broken down, although she does not go down without a fight. The extent to which that happened in real life is still being debated, but it did happen, and Mileva Maric had been all but lost to history. I’m so glad she was brought back to life with this book!

“You are a genius at everything but the human heart.”
Mileva to Albert


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