Half Life by Jillian Cantor

February 3, 2022

Half Life is a beautifully written historical novel by Jillian Cantor, based on the life of the famous scientist Marie Curie.  Cantor tells two parallel stories, in alternate chapters (half lives): one which follows the real Marie Curie’s life and another which is set in an alternate world where Marie, who was born Marya Skłodowska, stays in Poland and marries her first love.  The two stories begin with a historical fact: as a young woman in 1891, Marya served as governess to the children of the wealthy Zorawski family, hoping to earn enough money to leave Poland and study science at the Sorbonne in Paris.  She fell in love with Kazimierz (“Kaz”), the oldest son of the family and an aspiring mathematician, but his mother forced him to break off their engagement because Marya was too poor and, supposedly, would never amount to much.  Marya was heartbroken and her father provided her with money to go to Paris and study.  From there, the two stories diverge.  Kaz shows up at the train station, begging Marya to marry him.  In the “Marie” story, she turns him down and goes on to Paris, while in the “Marya” story, she decides to stay in Poland and marry Kaz.

The “Marie” chapters follow Marya to Paris, where she changes her name to the French version, Marie, and studies physics and chemistry at the Sorbonne.  She is first in all her classes, but her male classmates don’t take her seriously.  Then a Polish professor introduces her to Pierre Curie, who becomes her lab partner.  Unlike her classmates, Pierre is fully supportive of Marie’s work and recognizes her genius.  The two of them fall in love and marry, and together they discover radium and polonium, which Marie names after her home country.  She becomes the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, when she and Pierre win the Nobel Prize in physics.  He refuses to accept it unless she shares the prize with him.  Marie and Pierre have two daughters, Irène and Ève.  Later, Irène becomes a scientist and also wins the Nobel Prize, while Ève, the only member of the family who is not scientifically inclined, becomes a concert pianist and writes a biography of her mother.

Pierre dies in a tragic carriage accident when he is trampled by a horse while crossing a street in Paris, and Marie is devastated by his death.  But she is determined to carry on his work with radium, and she defies the male establishment to take his place as a professor at the Sorbonne.  Her bid for a place in the French Academy of Sciences is less successful, and the spot goes to a male scientist.  A few years after Pierre’s death, Marie falls in love with a married colleague, Paul Langevin, and the two of them meet in secret in a Paris apartment.  Paul’s wife, Jeanne, finds their letters and blackmails Marie.  Even though Marie pays Jeanne what she demands, Jeanne gives the letters to the press, and causes a huge scandal which almost ruins Marie’s career.  She goes on in spite of it, though, and wins a second Nobel Prize, this time in chemistry, becoming the first woman to win two Nobel Prizes, in two different fields.  Unfortunately, the news of the scandal overshadows her second Nobel Prize.

Paul ends up going back to Jeanne, while Marie becomes famous.  During World War I, she brings mobile X-ray machines to the front lines to diagnose soldiers’ wounds.  After the war, she travels to America in order to get more radium for her institute in Paris.  Marie never patents radium, because she wants to share it with the world, but this means that, after World War I, she only has one gram left with which to do research.  For much of their lives, Marie and Pierre suffer from poor health which, of course, is the result of radiation poisoning, although they do not recognize, at the time, that radium can have any ill effects.  Pierre would probably have died from it if he had not been killed in the accident.  Marie eventually does die from it in 1934, shortly after founding an institute in Warsaw for the radiation treatment of cancer.

The “Marya” chapters alternate with the “Marie” chapters, and tell the life of the fictional Marya Zorawska, who is Marie Curie as she might have been if she had chosen love over science.  Marya marries Kaz instead of getting on the train to Paris.  His family disinherits him, and he is unable to continue his studies as a mathematician.  Instead, he takes a job teaching at a boys’ school in the fictional city of Loksow, in the part of Poland that was ruled by Russia.  In Russian-controlled Poland, it was illegal for women to pursue a higher education.  Women who were determined to continue their education went to secret “Flying Universities” where they went to each other’s houses and taught each other.  Marya founds a Flying University in Loksow and teaches chemistry to what is at first a small group of women, but their number grows larger and larger.  Kaz opposes Marya’s plan because he fears for her safety, but she is determined to educate the women of Loksow.

An aspiring concert pianist, Leokadia, joins the Flying University and becomes Marya’s best friend.  Her father is a prominent mathematician, and Kaz studies with him.  Leokadia’s father is impressed with Kaz and, as his assistant, Kaz starts earning more money, and he and Marya leave their one-room apartment for a more spacious one.  Sadly, Marya loses her first baby, who is born at around the same time as Irène Curie in the “Marie” chapters and in real life. The tragedy causes a rift between Marya and Kaz, who ends up having an affair with Leokadia.  After Marya discovers the affair, Leokadia leaves Poland and goes on to have a career as a world-famous pianist.  In real life, and in the “Marie” chapters, Leokadia was Kaz’s wife and gave up her career to marry him.

Marya goes to Paris, without Kaz, to visit her sisters.  A fascinating aspect of the book is how Marya’s choice affects her sisters.  In the “Marie” chapters, and in real life, her oldest sister, Bronia, is a doctor, and Marie lives in her apartment while studying at the Sorbonne.  The middle sister, Hela, is only a year older than Marie/Marya.  In the “Marie” chapters, she marries a photographer and lives a life of obscurity in Poland.  In the “Marya” chapters, Hela marries Pierre Curie’s brother Jacques, and she is the one who becomes a famous scientist and wins the Nobel Prize.  Marya eventually meets Pierre in Paris, and the two of them are immediately drawn to each other, but they won’t act on their feelings because she is married.  In this alternate world, Marya saves Pierre from the carriage accident, so he lives a much longer life, but his scientific career never flourishes.  He is always in the shadow of his famous brother.

Marya eventually reconciles with Kaz and returns to Poland.  After the 1905 revolution in Russia, women in Russian Poland are allowed to pursue a higher education openly, and so Marya studies with a female chemist and works as her lab assistant.  She never becomes as famous as Marie Curie, but she achieves much in the field of women’s education.  Marya gives birth to a daughter, Klara, around the same time as Ève Curie and, Klara, like Ève, becomes a concert pianist.  Marya is more supportive of her daughter’s career than Marie is of Ève.  Marie always wants Ève to be a scientist like the rest of the family and doesn’t understand her lack of inclination for science.

Half Life is a wonderful novel that explores how our choices, both large and small, affect our lives and those of the people around us.  If Marie Curie had made a different choice and married her first love, the world would have been different.  In Marya’s world, there is no radiation treatment for cancer.  As mentioned, the members of her family live different lives.  I already mentioned the fate of Pierre Curie in the two timelines.  Both of Marie’s sister Bronia’s children died tragically in real life, but they live on in Marya’s world.  Bronia is a doctor in both timelines, but in Marie’s, she is the principal physician at Marie’s institute for radiation treatment of cancer.  Hela, in Marya’s timeline, lives a similar life to Marie’s in real life, even though the nature of her great discovery is different.  In both timelines, Marie and Marya have regrets about the choice they made, and wonder how their lives would have been if they had made the other choice.  Both Marie and Marya are strong, admirable women.  Cantor does an excellent job telling their stories.  It could not have been easy, keeping the two timelines straight, but Cantor does it very well.  I highly recommend this book.

Half Life is available from the Offsite Shelving Facility.