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Half Life

Half Life

A Novel

eBook - 2021
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"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."--Publisher.
Publisher: New York, NY : Harper Perennial, [2021]
Copyright Date: ©2021
ISBN: 0062969897
9780062969897 (electronic bk.)
Branch Call Number: eBOOK OVERDRIVE
Characteristics: 1 online resource
text file,rda

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Mar 15, 2021

This is going to be one of my favorite books of 2021. Have your tissues ready! Jillian Cantor brilliantly delivers a dual plotline narrative that not only beautifully portrays the life of Marie Curie, but also an alternative life that is hauntingly similar yet at the same time very different. An intricate dance that readers like me who like to find order and connections will greatly appreciate and admire. Marie Curie's timeline is filled with facts, dates, people, and events with historical verification. Marya Zorawski's life is also populated with many of the same people and events, but with a twist. At one point Marya ponders her life so far after a conversation with her husband Kaz:
". . .I wondered if it was true. If no matter what choices we made, what we had and what we were given and what we took for ourselves or not, if there were certain people in our lives who we would find our way to, no matter what."
Cantor chooses to overlay fictional Marya's life with a reflection of the true Marie's life. What we see in this book for me brings to life the doctrine of providence. The push and pull between God's will and free will is difficult for our minds to comprehend, but in essence our Heavenly Father provides what we need for our sanctification. (Romans 8:31-39).

Jan 27, 2021

Thanks to Book Club Cookbook's GalleyMatch program and publisher Harper Perennial for an advance reader's copy. All comments and opinions are my own.

For me, this book sounded so much better than it was. What if Marie Curie had stayed in Poland instead of moving to Paris to study and eventually becoming one of the earliest women scientists, the discoverer of radium, and the first woman to be awarded two Nobel Prizes? Jillian Cantor uses a dual storyline to tell the true story of Marie and the fictional one of Marya, the woman who stays in Poland, marries budding mathematician Kaz Zorawski, and with him has a daughter who becomes a piano prodigy.

The author is qualified but she didn't give me a reason to care for either Marie nor Marya, and the concept she used was limiting. We know the story of Marie Curie, or can easily read about her in Wikipedia. What Cantor added was imagining the details of Marie's relationship with husband Pierre Curie and later her romantic liaison with a married man. Marie never realizes (or admits) she is "the villain" in that adulterous liaison. In the fictional segment when Cantor creates Marya's story, she includes many of the same real-life characters from Marie's world though different things happen to them in the fictional account. This caused confusion for me - wait, didn't this person die? Isn't this person in love with someone else? These questions and more like them distracted me and I lost momentum while reading.

I want to add that I read this with my book club and the response of the other nine readers was quite mixed. Some really liked it, some sort of liked it, and a few felt as I did.

My question for Cantor: if you are going to imagine a different life for Marie if she had stayed in Poland as Marya, why would you craft a slightly mundane, predictable narrative? I was never invested in the lives of either woman, although Cantor does a good job of describing the discrimination and belittlement of women during this time period. Even though this is a novel exploring loves lost and destinies unfulfilled, it is told without liveliness and emotion. I just can't recommend it.


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