A powerful imagination and sure grasp of modern developments in mathematics and physics are the chief distinguishing virtues of this superb second novel by the British author of Blood Sisters (not reviewed). The protagonist is Lieserl, the illegitimate daughter born in 1902 to Albert Einstein and Mileva Maric, then immediately given up for adoption lest the "screaming" infant disrupt her father's scientific studies. Nothing is known of the historical Lieserl, but in McGrail's imagining she grows up (in a Hungarian village with her adoptive "mother") painfully aware of her rejection, fascinated by what she can glean of her father's researches and theories, and determined to "haunt" him by becoming a superior theoretical scientist herself ("I'd beat him to an explanation of the universe if it killed me"). The novel recounts in exemplary detail her removal to Vienna (with her tutor and eventual lifelong companion) in 1913, marriage (to a Jewish importer), motherhood, success as a physicist, complicity with the Third Reich (persuaded she must help "smash the Jewish relativity theory . . . and advance the cause of Aryan physics")—and, after being separated by WWII from her loved ones, her passage to America and participation in the Manhattan Project. This crowded story climaxes with a coruscating primal scene: Lieserl's first meeting with her father, on his deathbed—a meeting that is, simultaneously, accusation, reconciliation, and purgation. To McGrail's great credit, the long aftermath of Lieserl's odyssey—and her accommodation to the vengeful motives that have sustained her—is no less absorbingly dramatic than all that has preceded it. McGrail's formidably intelligent novel presents with perfect clarity intimidating scientific matter and offers unusually thought-provoking ideas about the energies liberated by women's—or at least this woman's—resentment of male myopia and condescension. A fascinating complement to Denise Giardina's fictional portrayal of German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Saints and Villains, p. 10).
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