I let out a long sigh of relief when I finished this book because it is so long and tedious. I was shocked to learn that it is “the abridged version of the original memoir” (405) which ran to over 600 pages! I guess I should be grateful my book club chose this version!
This memoir by Jane Hawking is the story of her life with the world-famous physicist, Stephen Hawking. She describes their first encounters, their courtship, and their 25-year marriage. The focus is on her struggles to cope with her husband’s increasing dependence as his body degenerated while simultaneously meeting the needs of their three children. In a postlude, she briefly describes their lives after their divorce.
The book needs a thorough editing. There is too much discussion of irrelevant material. For example, does the reader really need to know that Jane “found many similarities between the kharjas and the cantigas de amigo, which were possibly the result of Mozarabic migrations northward” (200) or that Castilian villancicos are full of medieval iconography symbolizing the multiplicity of the aspects of love (236)? Why is a two-page biography of Newton included (331-332)? In a memoir, I don’t expect to read that “In the thirteenth century, Alfonso the Wise of Castile expanded the role of Toledo as a major centre for translation” (103). After a while, the impression is that the author is trying to convince us of her erudition.
Then there’s the needless repetition. How often must we read about the difficulties she experienced trying to write her thesis, the problems she had with Stephen’s nurses, the fatigue she suffered, the thin veneer of normality they tried to maintain, or the innocence of her relationship with Jonathan? With the latter, a quote from Hamlet came to mind: "The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” At times the book reads like a series of lists: we get lists of friends, lists of places where she and Stephen travelled for conferences, lists of social functions she hosted, lists of concerts she attended, etc.
Undoubtedly, Jane faced great challenges and deserves recognition for her role in Stephen’s life. By caring for him and the family as she did, she aided his advancement in his pursuits. By just describing what she did, she would earn the reader’s respect and sympathy. The problem is that instead of letting her story speak for itself, she whines and complains. At times the book seems one long complaint. Everything has to come back to her. She is upset because she didn’t receive gifts when Stephen received honours. She wants sympathy because she had the shingles. She becomes so agitated when people question her about Tim’s father after she has brought another man into the household? This constant tone of “Woe is me” makes her seem selfish and petty and draws attention away from her unquestionable accomplishments.
What the reader is not given in the book is a real understanding of the relationship between Stephen and Jane. Listing her responsibilities and Stephen’s accomplishments does little to show how the two of them were together. Stephen does not come across very positively: he was intellectually arrogant; he was utterly absorbed in physics to the detriment of his family; he needed to be the centre of attention; he was dismissive of Jane’s interests; and he was uncommunicative. As I’ve already stated, Jane comes across as whiny. At the beginning, she describes herself as someone “who managed to see the funny side of situations” and was “fairly shy, yet not averse to expressing . . . opinions” (6), yet her sense of humour seems non-existent and one of her problems is her self-effacement. She also shows little self-awareness because she implies that she is a victim, that this life just happened to her, whereas she made a choice to marry Stephen knowing his diagnosis and the prognosis. I’m left with a question: did she marry Stephen because she loved him? Theirs does not seem to be a great love affair. From the beginning, their relationship seems detached, certainly not passionate. She seems to stay with Stephen out of a sense of obligation, more than love.
The book jacket mentions the author’s “candour” but I found her often evasive. For instance, when mentioning Stephen’s nurse, who became his second wife, Jane says, “Probably with her he had found someone tougher than me with whom he could again somehow have a physical relationship” (378). So Jane and Stephen were no longer intimate? Later, she says, “Flames of vituperation, hatred, desire for revenge leapt at me from all sides, scorching me to the quick with accusations” (379). All sides?
On the topic of editing, I may come across as petty, but I must point out the careless proofreading of the book: “they behaved with caution and towed the party line” (149) and “Irritatingly their gossip was as pervasive as the smoke from their cigarettes, I and found myself compelled to listen” (170) and “Both her age and her sex enabled her to avoid the some of the pressures” (226) and “In conclusion the author looked forward to the time when mankind would able to ‘know the mind of God’” (289). And how about sentences with seven prepositional phrases: “At Cern Stephen would be working on the implications for the direction of the arrow of time of quantum theory and of the observations from the particle accelerator (286-287). And what editor would allow the phrase “the elderly Indian squaw” (91)?!
The reason I tend to avoid memoirs is that they are inevitably one-sided. I prefer to get several perspectives since the truth usually lies somewhere in the middle of each person’s version of events. An article I read stated, “Jane decided it was time to answer her critics with a final definitive description of the marriage, purging the bitterness occasioned by the 'horrendously painful' divorce that tainted the first book” (http://www.stuff.co.nz/entertainment/books/4627634/Hawkings-ex-writes-second-memoir). This begs the question: what bias taints this book? The film The Theory of Everything was apparently based on this memoir, but the film is not faithful to the book. Is the book faithful to what really happened?
Anyone looking for real insight into the relationship between Stephen Hawking and his first wife will not find it here. The book is a long and tiresome read; consequently, its effect is not to give the author the respect and recognition she craves and probably deserves.