It is described as a novel, a work of fiction, but it seems to be a biography of Albert Einstein. It even has actual photos included! The only fictional element seems to be Mimi Beaufort, a 17-year-old girl who accidentally dials Einstein’s phone number.
The book opens promisingly. Mimi misdials and ends up reaching Einstein on the day of his 75th birthday. They chat very briefly and end with promises to talk again. The first chapter even has touches of humour: Einstein tells his secretary, “’When a man sits with a pretty girl for an hour, it seems like a minute. But let him sit on a hot stove for a minute and it’s longer than any hour. That’s relativity.’” This beginning suggests I can expect to read what the publisher described: “From their first conversation Mimi Beaufort had a profound effect on Einstein and brought him, in his final years, back to life. In turn he let her into his world.” A “riotous, charming and moving novel” is promised, but what the reader gets is a poorly-written biography of the famous scientist. The reader has to plow through 75% of the book before Mimi actually shows up again! And since Mimi supposedly speaks to Einstein on March 14, 1954, and Einstein died 13 months later, on April 17, 1955, how can Mimi have had a profound influence on his final years?
Even if this were a biography, it has so many unnecessary details. When Albert moves, we are told, “The three-room apartment is at Wittelsbacherstraße 13 in a well-to-do neighbourhood near Fehrbelliner Platz. He has a telephone number, Berlin 2807.” When Albert takes trips on the lake in Zürich, the reader gets the ship's provenance: “The family takes trips on the paddle-steamer Stadt Rapperswil, built by Escher, Wyss & C. for the Zürich-Schifffahrtsgesellchaft.” When Einstein encounters any fellow scientist, that person’s accomplishments are enumerated: “Lorentz shared the 1902 Nobel Prize with his fellow Dutchman Pieter Zeeman for the discovery of the Zeeman effect: ‘in recognition of the extraordinary service they rendered by their researches into the influence of magnetism upon radiation phenomena’.” We are informed that Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated with a “blowback-operated, semi-automatic FN Model 1910 Browning pistol, manufactured by Fabrique Nationale in Belgium.” This is essential information in a biography of Einstein? We are given the list of Albert and Elsa’s shopping: “red cabbage, goat fat and kippered herring. Bottles of essence of lily of the valley.” Then there are geography lessons: “Albert lectures in Sendal, northeast of Tokyo on Honshu island; in Nikko, in the mountains north of Tokyo; in Nagoya, in the Chūbu region; in Kyoto, and in Fukuoka on the northern shore of Japan’s Kyushu island.” And do we really need to know that Elsa rummages in her handbag “for her phials of aromatic perfumes: Aventure, with its notes of cedar wood, amber and pink pepper, Linde Berlin, which evokes Berlin’s famously fragrant linden trees, and Violet, based on a perfume created for Marlene Dietrich” ? This type of extraneous detail is found throughout and to say it becomes tedious is an understatement.
The style is very disjointed. Sentences are strung together without connection: “The 16,500-ton Red Star Line’s SS Westernland sails from Antwerp with Elsa and Helen Dukas aboard. An unmarked police car deposits Albert on the Southampton quayside . . . ” Try to make sense of these consecutive sentences: “In the summer they take a holiday on Saranac Lake in the Adirondack Mountains. The doctor administers morphine. Else tries to knit a scarf.” And then there is needless repetition. The information that “Mimi and Isabella might dream of studying at the Royal Academy of Music in London. Unfortunately there are insufficient funds to enable them to do so” is followed by “They’ve learned that there are no funds available to meet the Royal Academy of Music’s tuition fees, travel and accommodation expenses.”
At times, things that are mentioned make no sense. Einstein suffers from “violent diarrhoea” but is told to drink water and to exercise “to stimulate his bowel movements”? The passage of time is not clearly delineated so confusion results. For example, the reader is told that “Mileva suffers a nervous breakdown and is confined in the Zürich Theodosianum Parkseite Klinik.” Three sentences later, we are told that “Mileva and Tete are confined in the Bethanien Klinik in Zürich – Mileva with chronic nerve pressure on her spine.”
As I stated at the beginning, I’m not certain what this book is trying to be. In actuality it seems like an unrevised rough draft. According to promotional material for the book, Ian McEwan has stated that R. J. Gadney, “has conjured, with an accomplished novelist's art, a strange and luminous fiction, a literary gem.” I’m a great admirer of Ian McEwan’s writing, but he and I definitely disagree about the quality of this book.
Note: I received a digital galley from the publisher via NetGalley.