This book was an absolutely brilliant gift from a friend of mine for my birthday. She heard someone talking about it on the radio and thought, holy hell, who can I give this to? (Or possibly she doesn't cuss so much in her mind.) C'est moi! And I absolutely want to eat the physical book, and the idea behind it. Not only is it a hefty coffee table book with thick, toothy paper and good art direction, but it also glows in the dark
. How cool is that? And even though I'm congenitally indisposed towards non fiction of any stripe, or biography more specifically, I have sincerely loved science biographies that hinge on a relationship. I have avoided using my kids' names on Goodreads because of some vague sense of unease about it, but I will say now that my son's middle name is Galileo partially due to Galileo's Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith and Love which had me weeping in a bathroom at the death of Maria Celeste, his eponymous daughter. (Spoiler alert: everyone is dead in biographies about people who lived in the 16th century. Someone should have told me.)
The title is a little wrong here; this is more a social biography of Marie than a taxonomy of her relationship with Pierre. I'm not really complaining about that though, because her relationships with her kids and later lovers (after Pierre's death) are at least as interesting, if not more so. The book has an essayish feel, with lots of quotes and both pictures and illustrations - that being occasionally a problem for me when Redniss would use an illustration of a primary source, and not the source itself. I really, really want to see the original drawing from a Hiroshima survivor in one instance, not the artistic rendering. That was the instance that bothered me the most because I felt like the prettying of the art undercut something essential in that child's testimony, wrapped the rawness of the event in protective artistic cloaking. And it was weird because there were instances where primary sources were reproduced more or less intact - though everything was stylized in some way.
For a story of the personal life of the astonishing Curies - I really have a ton of respect for their brilliance now - the tone is positively arid. Some of this is the post-modernist rendering of their lives. Now, plenty of people make the ward against evil when post-modernism is invoked, so I should probably define my terms. I mean post-modern literature, with its reliance on collage and pastiche to create narrative connectives without narratives. So the explanation of a scientific concept would segue without segue into a digression about underground testing in Nevada, or, as I mentioned before, Hiroshima, and the shift was breakneck. I get what she was doing - drawing this line between concepts imagined by people that then had real, physical, and sometimes deadly consequences for other people - but more than once I wished for more connective tissue between the bones of the argument.
Ultimately, I think the problem might me more the longstanding rancor between science and Modernism - and I nurse the pet theory that post-Modernism is mostly Modernism with Simpsons references, and not a decisively different set of approaches to life, the world, and everything. Modernism has always had an anti-science bent - spiritualists knocking on boards as a ward against the mechanistic mass death of the first world war. Some of this is sophomoric playing in scientific concepts that must by needs be carried in words, and words are emminantly twistable. Dude, did you ever think about how atoms are mostly empty space, and therefore we're just empty space? Whoa. While that's fun for smoking the jay and pontificating, I would like a little more oomph in a connection between Chernobyl's mutant animals - which, just as a collection, is freaking cool to see - and Marie's death by cancer. (Spoiler alert.)
So. This is an absolutely worthy biography of Curie - I kept exclaiming to my husband various facts about her life - and just gorgeous if you like Matisse style figure drawings, which I do - but there is a more here that I longed for, and that more is an emotional more that is strangely belied by the title. Completely worth the hour or so it took to read. I will be having no more daughters to name, but Marie is a solid name, one I would consider.