A young Jewish physicist in 1914 Russia wants to photograph a solar eclipse to prove Einstein’s theory of relativity while his sister, a doctor, struggles to ensure their survival.
Readers not steeped in physics may not be aware that a British astronomer proved Einstein’s theory after a 1919 solar eclipse. In Barenbaum’s first novel, a historical thriller about physics and the travail of Russian Jews, fictional physicist Vanya lives with his sister, Miri, and their grandmother Baba in Kovno, where anti-Semitic violence erupts regularly. Vanya has been promised a position at Harvard and a life in America for his family if he can prove Einstein’s theory with equations and photos of the coming eclipse. On the eve of war, Miri’s fiance, Yuri, secretly agrees to enlist for military duty in exchange for Miri’s promotion to surgeon at the hospital where he’s trained her. To escape an influential university colleague itching to appropriate his research, Vanya also enlists, heading off with Yuri to Riga, where he hopes to join an American physicist bringing the necessary camera to photograph the eclipse. Meanwhile, as the noose tightens around the Jewish community in Kovno, Mira and Baba escape with the help of Sasha, a Jewish soldier Miri has met under harrowing circumstances. Baba heads to St. Petersburg while Miri and Sasha set off to find Yuri and Vanya. Unbeknownst to Miri, the two have left Riga searching for the elusive American. The siblings separately face multiplying crises that begin to run together—several train incidents, several knife incidents, etc. Vanya unexpectedly bonds with Yuri while Miri, no surprise, is inescapably drawn to passionate, valiant Sasha. Too bad for her because Yuri’s careful self-control is misleading. In fact, while Miri and Vanya are annoyingly gifted as well as earnestly moral and Miri’s darling Sasha is typically dashing and heroic, Yuri evolves into Barenbaum’s one fully developed character, heartbreakingly full of human contradictions.
Barenbaum has an eye for visual detail, but her story bogs down in sentiment, overplotting, and lecturing.