Half Life by Jillian Cantor

Reviewed by Patricia Simms-Reeve

Half Life is a well-chosen title for this book, half fact and half fiction. Half life is the chemical term for the time it takes for half the radioactive element to decay. For Radium, it is 1600 years.

Half the story is of Marie Curie and the other is an imagined tale of Marya, whose circumstances resemble Marie’s, except she does not pursue a life in science in Paris. She chooses to remain in Poland, devoting most of her life to family and satisfying her intellectual drive by establishing her version of the Flying University, which stimulated women’s lives, secretly.

Both women feel they have a life that is not completely whole. Science absorbs Marie and she bemoans her ability to be a good mother and wife. Towards the end of her life, she says,’ Love is fleeting, Science will never leave you’.

Marya on the other hand, values friendships and deep relationships. As she lay dying, she wonders if she had gone to Paris as a young woman, would she have had a more fulfilling happy life with Pierre Curie….although she was married to Kazimierz and had two delightful children.

Half Life is about choice and how it significantly determines a life. The results may be profound. In Marya’s case, she forsakes study at the Sorbonne where she may have met Pierre Curie. Her brilliance would have led to her discovering new elements, radium and polonium, winning the Nobel Prize twice and international fame. Instead, in Poland, a mother and wife, she lived an arduous life of struggling poverty, with a husband who was obsessed by Mathematics and had an affair with the beautiful pianist, Kadi, Marya’s closest friend.

Marie Curie became one of the most important scientists of the century, ranked with men such as Einstein. She is celebrated, not just for her work but for her courage and determination. As a woman, she battled prejudice and tradition in the powerful world of male academics at one of the world’s great universities. She is an inspiration to many women.

All this came at a terrible price. She met a slow and painful death caused by the radiation which contaminated her at her lab.

Jillian Cantor has handled an interesting proposition which studies choice and its repercussions quite deftly. She has presented Marie Curie’s life faithfully and constructed an engaging portrait of Marya who lived a more conventional life in Poland. The narrative captures a reader’s attention and sections dealing with the discoveries of polonium and radium, and Marie’s reaction to Pierre’s death are moving.

Most characters, however, are two dimensional even blurred, mainly because the narrative is such a strong element.

Occasionally, the language is jarring, even anachronistic. Conversations echo the present more than the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth century, at times.  “Will my baby be ok?” and, learning of Katz’s infidelity, Marya wants to “throw up”. At one stage it is said, “you can take the scientist out of Poland but not Poland out of the scientist”!

Admirers of Marie Curie will enjoy this book as it is faithful in its detail, even including the brief affair with a married colleague, Paul Langevin, in her later years as a widow.

Jillian Cantor claims her inspiration to write the book to be the anecdote concerning Kazimierz who was Marie’s abandoned fiancé but also the fictitious Marya’s husband.

Marie Curie was feted throughout Poland, memorials and statues were erected, the Radium Institute founded. Movingly, Kazimierz was seen spending time in the last years of his life sitting and staring at her statue outside the Institute in Warsaw.

There are minor flaws but Half Life is essentially a book that deserves to be read, because it describes the difficulties women faced at that time in a male dominated world, but more importantly, it relates the life of one of the greatest minds of the twentieth century, that of Madame Curie.

Half Life

[2021]

by Jillian Cantor

Simon and Schuster

ISBN 978 17611 0079 6

$29.99.      390 pages

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