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Review: Half Life by Jillian Cantor

Half Life
Jillian Cantor
Simon & Schuster AUS
2021, 416p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: In Poland in 1891, Marie Curie (then Marya Sklodowska) was engaged to a budding mathematician, Kazimierz Zorawski. But when his mother insisted she was too poor and not good enough, he broke off the engagement. A heartbroken Marya left Poland for Paris, where she would attend the Sorbonne to study chemistry and physics. Eventually Marie Curie would go on to change the course of science forever and be the first woman to win a Nobel Prize.

But what if she had made a different choice?

What if she had stayed in Poland, married Kazimierz at the age of twenty-four, and never attended the Sorbonne or discovered radium? What if she had chosen a life of domesticity with a constant hunger for knowledge in Russian Poland where education for women was restricted, instead of studying science in Paris and meeting Pierre Curie?

Entwining Marie Curie’s real story with Marya Zorawska’s fictional one, Half Life explores loves lost and destinies unfulfilled—and probes issues of loyalty and identity, gender and class, motherhood and sisterhood, fame and anonymity, scholarship and knowledge. Through parallel contrasting versions of Marya’s life, Jillian Cantor’s unique historical novel asks what would have happened if a great scientific mind was denied opportunity and access to education. It examines how the lives of one remarkable woman and the people she loved – as well as the world at large and course of science and history—might have been irrevocably changed in ways both great and small. 

I thought this was fascinating.

Everyone knows who Marie Curie is, she was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize (shared with her husband), she also won a second Nobel Prize for a different science after his death, on her own. She discovered polonium and radium and developed mobile X-ray technology to bring the machines to injured soldiers in the fields so that they might be diagnosed and helped much sooner. This book is a Sliding Doors type of story, which splits the narrative into alternating chapters – one set where Marya doesn’t get on the train to go to Paris to study at the Sorbonne and instead marries her Polish boyfriend, when he decides she means more to him than his wealthy family. In the other, she does get on that train and her life plays out mostly as Curie’s does in reality.

One of the things that I really enjoyed about this was that the same people populated both narratives. For example, obviously Marie (known as Marya in the chapters where she stays in Poland to marry) doesn’t marry Pierre Curie in one half of the story, but she still meets him. Her life still becomes entwined with his albeit in a very different manner. Without Marie as his wife, Pierre doesn’t win a Nobel Prize in this section of the story and his life is also very different than the life they build in the chapters where Marie chooses Paris, the Sorbonne and furthering her education.

I knew the bare basics about Marie Curie before this and have actually read books where characters come across her – not long ago I read one set in WWI where the main character meets Marie Curie as she’s driving around her mobile X-ray machine and Curie organises for that character to receive one to use. But this gave me so much more about this absolutely remarkable family. Marie -then Marya- was born in a part of Poland under Russian rule and at her time of young adulthood, it wasn’t permitted for women to enrol in further study, hence why her father was saving to send Marya to Paris, to live with one of her sisters, who had already completed her studies there. Marya’s father was a man who seemed determined to give his daughters every opportunity, even though he had experienced situations that meant he was now of reduced means. He believed in their abilities and that they could do anything they wanted to – medicine, science, etc. This meant they had to leave to complete their studies and Paris was a very different place to Russian Poland, although Marie (as she was known in France) was often still the only female in her science classes. Her mind was so brilliant I can barely understand it – I’m not scientifically or mathematically minded so no matter which “version” of her life I was in (in the life she chooses to stay in Poland, the man she marries is a mathematician, quite brilliant in his own right but probably not as much as his wife, who cannot study officially in that life for many years) there were large parts of what people were studying that I didn’t particularly understand! I loved the symmetry of the two timelines – when Marya stays in Poland, she obviously doesn’t win the Nobel Prize, like Pierre doesn’t…but who does keeps things consistent, continues to be a reflection of the story that is grounded in her real life choices and experiences. This is repeated throughout the two portions of the book as the same characters continue to show up in different roles, shaping Marie or Marya’s life in different ways.

I thought this was a really unique idea and a wonderful way to tell a story. I love a ‘what if’? type of story and imagine if the world didn’t get Marie Curie and her husband making the discoveries that they did. Makes you think about the decisions you make in a split second (such as Marya choosing whether or not to get on the train to Paris or whether to choose love as she knew it then) and how they impact on the rest of your life. I appreciated all the little details here, especially at the end. I thought that was really well done.

8/10

Book #67 of 2021

Half Life definitely counts towards my 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge. It’s the 14th book completed so far.

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