Screenwriter and novelist Weston (First Night, 2009) presents a fictionalized account of Austrian physicist Lise Meitner’s struggle as a woman scientist and her role in the creation of the atomic bomb.
Weston’s historical novel oscillates between Lise’s story, starting in 1906, and her nephew Otto Robert Frisch’s 1968 quest to have a posthumous Nobel Prize awarded in her honor. Lise is part of the German research team that discovers nuclear fission, although only her colleague Otto Hahn receives the Nobel Prize during World War II; Lise, a Jew who converts to Protestantism, is in Sweden and her scientific achievement is overlooked. The author presents a vivid, inspiring portrait of scientific research at Imperial University in Vienna and Germany’s University of Berlin. Readers who possess even scant knowledge about physics will be intrigued by Lise’s close relationships with scientific luminaries such as Niels Bohr, Max Planck and Albert Einstein. More thought-provoking is Lise’s battle to establish herself as a physicist in a male-dominated profession. Weston describes Lise’s difficulty obtaining a teaching position in Vienna because “people expected her to cease playing at science, retire from the academic scene and find a good husband.” In Lise, the author has created a compelling, revelatory, feminist protagonist. However, the author’s use of multiple viewpoints detracts from the narrative. Lise’s is the most captivating, but when variegating into the viewpoints of Hahn, Planck and Frisch, the story blurs. Although most characters are well-developed, when more infamous character such as Adolf Hitler and Winston Churchill appear, it’s difficult to find them convincing; they become caricatures with arch dialogue. For instance, Weston’s Hitler proclaims, “Jews such as Haber are all communists, our enemies. My life is against them.” While it’s easy to believe Hitler would make a similar statement, Hitler as a character in a novel feels oversimplified. The author also glosses over the destruction the atomic bomb causes and the scientists’ reactions to the catastrophe they helped create.
An intriguing, educating historical novel that occasionally becomes muddled with too many viewpoints.