Half Life

- Jillian Cantor

Goodreads Book Blurb:

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.


My Review:

***Thanks to NetGalley and Simon & Schuster Australia for an eARC of this book. The following review is my honest reflection on the text provided.

solid, good read:

I found this book absolutely fascinating. Alternating chapters contrasted Marie Curie’s actual life with an imagined version of what could have been had she stayed in Poland and gotten married. I enjoyed both versions and found the alternating chapters worked well to tell an overall story of feminism in science.

I didn’t know much about Marie Curie so the chapters relaying her actual life, with some artistic license, were incredible. The amount of work she completed, constantly fighting against society and her peers to be taken seriously and to be allowed to do what she loved is awe-inspiring. In the other chapters, I appreciated Cantor’s imagined life for Curie. She showed that Curie likely would have faced a lot of the same struggles as a woman who felt a strong push to be educated and to educate others. Without a formal education, living in near-poverty, she never truly gave up on her dream – she just had to face a lot more obstacles.

It was interesting to see the same characters showing up in both worlds, often with very significant differences. Overall I was caught up in this story and appreciated this unique perspective on Curie’s life and her contributions to the world.

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