Half Life by Jillian Cantor

This novel based on the life of Marie Curie is one that ponders upon the question “what if.”

Marie Curie, born Marya Skłodowska, was a governess back in Warsaw, Poland when she was in her early twenties. While working for the Żorawskis, a family of the landed gentry, Marie fell in love with Kazimierz, the family’s elder son. However, when his parents refused to approve of the union on account of her “lowly station,” she left for Paris at the age of twenty-four, where she’d not only go on to change the course of science but life for women in the generations to come.

Half Life takes this pivotal moment in Marie Curie’s life, shows us how her life unfolded in reality, and what might have been if she had made a different choice to stay behind in Poland and marry Kazimierz. The two story lines go in parallel. In Marie’s chapters, we see a largely biographical account of her life, whereas Marya’s chapters are all fictional. Even though I was familiar with Marie Curie’s personal life, the love story of Marie and Pierre fascinated me as it highlights how marvelous life can be if you have a supportive partner who’d not stop championing you. In that regard, Pierre Curie was nothing like Albert Einstein who never credited his first wife, Mileva Marić, for her contributions in his works. Knowing the Curies’ blissful marriage made me uneasy about reading the imagined life of Marya. In that storyline, Marya and Kazimierz are barely making ends meet as he gets cut off from his family after their marriage. Because of this, Marya’s zest to learn and her ambitions are put on the back-burner until Kazimierz could make a name for himself. They also have marital problems – after a failed pregnancy that emotionally distances Marya from Kazimierz, he sleeps with Marya’s friend/ pianist, Leokadia (who was Kazimierz’s wife in real life). Although the marriage between Marya and Kazimierz improves as time passes by, it still made me uncomfortable imagining her in a less than happy union – it oddly felt like a betrayal to the Curies’ great love story!

Once I got past this initial apprehension, I started to enjoy Half Life a lot. I’m not sure if it was the writer’s intention – but this book made me wonder if women can have it all. Marie Curie was a great scientist – but, she was also a distant mother (both Marie’s daughters remained devoted to her despite her maternal shortcomings). Marie wasn’t a present figure when her children were growing up. She didn’t approve of her elder daughter, Irène, marrying Frédéric Joliot-Curie (although Marie later warmed up to Frédéric. This was a happy marriage too, and the couple went on to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1935). Marie was even less enthusiastic about her younger daughter Eve‘s career choice to become a pianist. On the other hand, to Marya, her daughter Klara meant the world – Marya was ready to put her passion for science on hold if it meant Klara, who dreamt of becoming a pianist, could pursue better opportunities. Half Life is an fascinating take on how different our lives could turn up depending on the choices we make and of our contribution to society, be it great or small. 

3.5 stars.

Note: Many thanks to Harper Perennial for sending me a review copy of Half Life.

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