cover image The Book About Blanche and Marie

The Book About Blanche and Marie

Per Olov Enquist, , trans. from the Swedish by Tiina Nunnally. . Overlook, $23.95 (218pp) ISBN 978-1-58567-668-2

Swedish novelist Enquist (The Royal Physician's Visit ) finds various riveting facets in the working friendship between Marie Curie and her lab assistant, Blanche Wittman. Fixating on "the utterly perfect bodies of these two women," Enquist zeroes in on what befell Blanche's, and on what it has to say about being modern. After working with the uranium-rich ore called pitchblende, Blanche got radiation poisoning; she eventually had both legs and one left arm amputated. She moved around on a wagon and lived in Marie's Paris apartment, where she died in 1913. (Curie died in 1938 of radiation sickness.) Blanche kept several notebooks, collectively entitled The Book of Questions , in which she revealed her obsession with love, first stoked years before by the doctor who treated her for hysteria at age 18, J.M. Charcot—the renowned head of Salpêtrière Hospital (Paris's asylum for mad women) whose public experiments were duly absorbed by the young Sigmund Freud. As Enquist fancifully, lugubriously and rapturously riffs on, extends, and wonders after the notebooks (which really exist), Blanche, Marie (suffering the scandal of her adulterous relationship with Paul Langevin) and the conflicted Charcot get alternating POV chapters, and the modern sensibility that sprang from her body—scientifically scrutinized and dissected, but ever resistant to being known or possessed—emerges beautifully. (Mar.)