Saturday, October 6, 2012

Marie Curie and Her Daughters by Shelley Emling


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The book's description from the publisher's website:

A new portrait of the two-time Nobel winner and her two daughters.
Focusing on the first family in science, this biography of Marie Curie plumbs the recesses of her relationships with her two daughters, extraordinary in their own right, and presents the legendary scientist to us in a fresh way.
Although the common image is that of a shy introvert toiling away in her laboratory, highly praised science writer Shelley Emling shows how Marie Curie was nothing short of an iconoclast. Her affair with a younger and married man drew the enmity of a xenophobic French establishment, who denied her entry to the Academy of Sciences and tried to expel her from France. But she was determined to live life how she saw fit, and passed on her resilience to her daughters. Emling draws on personal letters released by Curie’s only granddaughter to show how Marie influenced her daughters yet let them blaze their own paths. 

Factually rich, personal and original, this is an engrossing story about the most famous woman in science that rips the cover off the myth and reveals the real person, friend, and mother behind it.
What an amazing book! Despite it being a non-fiction one and centering around scientific subjects, I blazed through the whole 256 pages in one day (I'm a very slow reader and have two toddlers to contend with, so it is an accomplishment that doesn't happen often) and I only want more. Especially more of Ms. Emling's writing. She makes physics and chemistry approachable and easy to understand. As a matter of fact, for the first time in my life I was riveted by science and scientific research and discoveries. All my life, when it comes to science, I have suffered a severe case of ADD.
Understandably, to all of a sudden read an entire book in which science is one of the major topics with unswerving attention feels like some kind of magic charm performed by the writer.

A book hasn't made me this excited to be reading it for a long time. Marie Curie (or as she has always been called in Poland, Maria Sklodowska-Curie) was an exceptional woman, exceptional scientist and an exceptional mother to Irene and Eve. There has been criticism of her long periods of time spent away from her daughters (including almost never being there for their birthdays, important graduation dates and such) but the truth is she raised two wonderful women, strong, capable and very much accomplished in their own right, who had always been loving and devoted daughters, never having said a bad word about their mother. Shelley Emling took great care to show how difficult a life Marie had after her husband's death and what she had to contend with in order to be all she had been. Indeed, one could say that Marie was the prototype of today's woman who believes we can be both successful as mothers and career women. I loved Marie's bluntness about it as well which applies to modern critics of those who choose to work and raise children:

I agree, of course, that it is not easy for a woman to bring up children and work out of the home. But (...) I don't think that he has considered the rich women who leave their children to a governess and give most of their time to social visits and fashion. (p.36)*

In other words, let's not be hypocrites.

Eve Curie
Irene Curie

For a short book, there were a lot of things I learned about both Marie's personal life and the world of science she lived in. There are interesting passages about  Einstein, Edison, Bohr et al that made me want to seriously consider doing more reading on their lives as well. And maybe I will one day.

What I most want to do and what Marie Curie and Her Daughters has inspired me to do, is to learn as much as I can about other women, friends of Marie Curie, who were just as exceptional as she but of whom I hardly know anything such as Missy Meloney and Hertha Ayrton. They were pioneers and crusaders in the female world of the first half of 20th century and we would all do well to learn from them.

As my final thoughts I'll offer this: Marie Curie and Her Daughters reminded me and kept me in awe of how proud I am to be Polish, to be American, and most importantly to be a woman.

FTC: I received an ARC of Marie Curie and Her Daughters by Shelley Emling from the publisher, Macmillan Palgrave for a review.

*the quote is from an unfinished copy, please verify against a published book