Jillian Cantor: Half Life

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Jillian Cantor Half Life
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    Half Life
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    Harper Perennial
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    Альтернативная история / Историческая проза / на английском языке
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    New York
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Half Life: краткое содержание, описание и аннотация

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The USA Today bestselling author of In Another Time reimagines the pioneering, passionate life of Marie Curie using a parallel structure to create two alternative timelines, one that mirrors her real life, one that explores the consequences for Marie and for science if she'd made a different choice. In Poland in 1891, Marie Curie (then Marya Sklodowska) was engaged to a budding mathematician, Kazimierz Zorawski. But when his mother insisted she was too poor and not good enough, he broke off the engagement. A heartbroken Marya left Poland for Paris, where she would attend the Sorbonne to study chemistry and physics. Eventually Marie Curie would go on to change the course of science forever and be the first woman to win a Nobel Prize. But what if she had made a different choice? What if she had stayed in Poland, married Kazimierz at the age of twenty-four, and never attended the Sorbonne or discovered radium? What if she had chosen a life of domesticity with a constant hunger for knowledge in Russian Poland where education for women was restricted, instead of studying science in Paris and meeting Pierre Curie? Entwining Marie Curie’s real story with Marya Zorawska’s fictional one, Half Life explores loves lost and destinies unfulfilled—and probes issues of loyalty and identity, gender and class, motherhood and sisterhood, fame and anonymity, scholarship and knowledge. Through parallel contrasting versions of Marya’s life, Jillian Cantor’s unique historical novel asks what would have happened if a great scientific mind was denied opportunity and access to education. It examines how the lives of one remarkable woman and the people she loved—as well as the world at large and course of science and history—might have been irrevocably changed in ways both great and small.

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Jillian Cantor


For Gregg, my love in any timeline

She died a famous woman denying her wounds came from the same source as her power



France, 1934

In the end, my world is dark. My bones are tired, my marrow failing. I have given my whole life to my work, but now, science brings me no comfort.

My two Nobel medals aren’t here, keeping me warm, holding my hand. My Petites Curies cannot drive me into a heaven that I do not even believe exists, nor fix my bones the way I used them to help fix soldiers in the war. I can no longer really make out the glow of the radium tube on my nightstand. I know it is here, but that does not make me feel better. My eyesight has failed me enough that everything is almost blackness.

I am sixty-six years old, and I convalesce, my bones no longer able to carry the weight of me out of this bed. Nearly all day I sleep, but still I dream. Pierre comes back to me most of all, though it has been so long since I’ve seen him. And yet, when I close my eyes it could still be yesterday, and all the pain catches in my chest, and I stop breathing for a moment. Then I awaken, and I start again. I am not dead just yet.

Ève is here, though. She calls my name out in the darkness.

Maman, is there anything you need?

I can see the shape of her when I open my eyes again, more a shadow than my youngest daughter. The girl with the radium eyes. I wish I’d learned to understand her piano music more when I’d had the chance. There is more than science, I want to tell her now. Play all the concert halls you dream of, find a man who is your equal and love each other. But the words don’t quite come out.

Of course, I will play you a song, she says.

Maybe that is what I have asked of her instead. Because then there is the tinkling of piano keys, like raindrops on the metal roof of our laboratory that last morning with Pierre.

So much has happened since then; it is strange to be thinking about that rainy day again, that moment, now. I do not believe in the afterlife, or in God. I do not believe that Pierre will be waiting for me, somewhere, after all of this. My body, my bones, will be interred in the ground, and eventually turn to dust. And what will any of that matter anyway, once my heart stops, my brain deprived of oxygen, my mind completely gone? My mind. That is who I am, and who I was. Irène and Fred will carry on my work at the Institute, and everything I have done will not be lost. That should be enough now. I know that it should. But somehow it is not; my mind is still craving one last scientific problem, one more quandary before I go.


Hours have passed, or maybe just minutes? Or has it been days? My beautiful daughter, she is a shadow, hovering again. No, there are two shadows now. I wish for the second one to be Irène, my eldest daughter, my heart, my companion, my confidante. But the shadow is much too large, much taller than Ève.

Someone came to see you, Ève says. He says you were friends long ago, back in Poland.


The shape becomes a memory, and my sense of smell has not left me yet. I inhale: peppermint and pipe smoke. And then the icy river in Szczuki; the pine cones and fir trees lining the road where we walked together.

Marya, he says my given name now, a shock after some forty years of being called Marie. Or maybe I am remembering it the way he said my name back then, when he asked me to marry him, once, by the river.

We were so young then, we had nothing but the way we felt about each other. Until we didn’t even have that and I left Szczuki heartbroken. Kazimierz Zorawski is from another life.

Marya, he says again now. He must’ve sat down in a chair by my bed, because when I open my eyes again, his shadow is smaller, closer to me. I feel the weight of a hand on mine, and I know. I just know. It is his hand, and it still feels the same after all these years, all this time. I am twenty-two again, skating on the river, dizzy and laughing. Which is ridiculous, scientifically impossible. My bones are nearly dust. I cannot move out of this bed.

Why are you here? I think I say. Or maybe I don’t say anything at all.

The biggest mistake of my life, Kazimierz says, was ever letting you go. I should’ve married you.

But is it the biggest mistake of mine? What would a life with Kazimierz have been like? How different would everything have been?

I close my eyes, and I imagine it.


Poland, 1891

I packed my things in such a haste, barely even seeing my clothing through my haze of tears and anger. My valise lay open on my bed, and I pulled what little I owned from the corner chest, stuffing it inside, wiping away at the tears on my cheeks with the backs of my hands. It didn’t matter that my dresses would wrinkle. They were threadbare, and anyway, who would see them now except for Papa and Hela when I returned to them in Warsaw? Penniless. Worthless. Abandoned.

That was the feeling that hurt most, sent a physical pain shooting into my stomach. Mama and Zofia had already abandoned me years earlier, but not by choice, by getting sick and dying. And though I was so very sad that I’d become listless then, I was not angry, too, the way I was now. Kazimierz was not dying. He was very much alive, and he claimed he loved me. I knew he loved me. And yet he had left me anyway.

It is not my choice, you see, Marya, he had said to me hours earlier. My parents will not allow us to marry. We had walked along the path toward the river, away from his parents’ manor house in Szczuki, my younger charges, his younger siblings, taking their afternoon rests. Kazimierz held on to my hand, the way he always did when we walked together in the afternoons, but now that he was delivering terrible news, terrible words I did not want to hear, he gripped me tightly. My wrist began to ache, and I pulled out of his grasp. I have no choice, he said again, when I pulled away. Marya, please.

“You have a choice,” I’d told him. “There is always a choice.” That very idea was what had gotten me through months and months of being a governess for the Zorawskis before Kazimierz had arrived. I did not want to care for children. I did not even enjoy them the way my sister Hela did. My mind ached to learn. I’d dedicated every evening to self-study since I’d been in Szczuki, and though I’d arrived here equally enamored with literature, sociology, and science, in the past few years I’d decided that science was what I wanted to study at university. But to do so I would need to earn enough money to move out of Russian Poland, where women were not allowed to be or do anything of import, and most definitely not allowed to attend university.

I had planned to move to Paris to be with my older sister, Bronia, before I’d fallen in love with Kazimierz. We’d even had a deal, Bronia and I—I would work and send her money while she earned her medical degree, and then I would move to Paris, and she would work as a doctor and help put me through university. I had made my own choice: act as a governess for just a few years until I could afford to do what I really wanted. Here Kazimierz was, a man, and an intelligent one at that, and he was claiming he had no choice.

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