Books & Literature

Book Review: Half Life, by Jillian Cantor

FICTION: A brilliant sliding-doors reimagining of the passionate life of the first woman to win a Nobel Prize – and the life Marie Curie might have led if she had chosen love over science.

A wonderful celebration of life, whichever path you take.

“Kazimierz was a young love. It felt sweet and pretty … But with Pierre … I hold myself up, and he stands by my side, or, often, content to be behind me.”

Inspired by the fact that Kazimierz Zorawski spent the last years of his life outside the Radium Institute in Warsaw, staring at the statue of his former lover Marie Curie (the statue was built in her honour in 1934), Jillian Cantor has eloquently turned a known fact into an alluring tale in her latest novel Half Life.

As winner of two Nobel Prizes (Physics and Chemistry), Marie Curie (born as Marya Sklodowska) was a remarkable scientist as well as a pioneer of her time. She started life tough, experiencing the death of a sister and later, her mother (both by the age of 10). To help the family in her youth, she worked as a governess for the esteemed Zorawski family. Whilst there, she fell in love with their son Kazimierz.

Kazimierz was keen to marry Marya, however as she was a penniless governess from an unremarkable family, his parents did not approve of their union. Consequently, Kazimierz broke off the marriage and for us, the rest is history. In Half Life, however, Cantor ponders the question: what would have happened if he had not?

In this most captivating novel, Cantor interchanges between two lives along a timeline. Using the names Marie (based on her biography) and Marya (based on the fictional story) there is no confusion as she progresses through their life events in parallel. 

What is most beautiful about this novel is the move away from the modern discourse of work and family, such as the elusive work-life balance. In this novel, it is almost portrayed as a dichotomy. However, it is one of choice not circumstance. Both lives are celebrated as equally rewarding and the trajectories of their lives are not judged, just different. 

For example, it is refreshing that Marie (not to discount how amazing she was) was not glorified for leading the life of science that she led. In the novel, Marie’s inner thoughts are regret at not spending enough time with her children, and then as Marya, the regret is not chasing her love of science. 

As Cantor has kept Marie biographical, the characters, their traits, and encounters with Marie, are all real. With the fictional life as Marya, Cantor kept these same people in her life story. This provided much depth to the story of Marya and provided an authenticity that would have been less achievable had she had created brand new encounters or romances. 

It is the type of book that is such a pleasure to read and enjoy, you will repeat the experience. Littered with life anecdotes and continual self-reflection, it also speaks to the heart and caters to any audience, in particular working parents.

Reviewed by Rebecca Wu

Distributed by: Simon & Schuster Australia
Released: 7 April 2021
RRP: $29.99

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