Mrs. Einstein

Anna McGrail, Author
Anna McGrail, Author W. W. Norton & Company $24.95 (333p) ISBN 978-0-393-04611-3
Reviewed on: 06/01/1998
Release date: 06/01/1998
Hardcover - 336 pages - 978-1-86230-007-1
Paperback - 336 pages - 978-0-393-34199-7
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The imagined life of a woman hidden by history is the interesting, if not entirely successful, premise of this second novel by the British author of Blood Sisters. In January 1897, Albert Einstein met and fell in love with Mileva Maric, a fellow student at the Swiss Federal Polytechnic in Zurich. In 1902, Maric gave birth in her Hungarian hometown of Novi Sad to a baby girl, Lieserl. The couple, who eventually married, kept the child's birth a secret, and it is presumed they gave her up for adoption (her very existence was unknown until Einstein's secretary died in 1986). McGrail, however, has created an extraordinary, if far-fetched, life story for her protagonist: Lieserl grows up in rural Hungary, consumed with hatred for her father and obsessed with exacting revenge for her rejection. With an extraordinary mathematical ability, she sets out to master cutting-edge physics. Her goal, initially, is to beat Einstein to each of his mathematical proofs. Eventually, though, her plan turns nastier: to use the theory of relativity developed by her pacifist father to engineer a nuclear bomb. McGrail, a compelling storyteller, recounts Lieserl's dramatic journey--her flight from occupied Hungary to Vienna, marriage to a Jewish businessman, the birth of her own two children, her struggle to become a respected physicist, complicity with the Nazis, loss of her family to the death camps, a move to America to work on the Manhattan Project and eventual confrontation with her father--with clear and focused prose. McGrail presents a great deal of daunting scientific material in a manner that makes it both accessible and exciting, but the life she imagines for Lieserl is both completely implausible (how is it that a poorly educated farm girl can challenge the greatest physicist of our time?) and annoying in its lack of reflection (especially after Lieserl loses her husband and children to the Nazis yet still remains obsessed with punishing a father she has never met). Ultimately, the blind obsession with revenge that animates this novel also brings it down. (Aug.)
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