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Physics in Fiction
They were roommates at Harvard. Charlie (for Charlotte), artistic, gorgeous, sophisticated, and devoted to acting and French literature, hailed from a distinguished, well-off African American family in Brookline. Style-challenged, awkward, and mathematically gifted Helen was a “work-study white science nerd from Pasadena,” enthralled by quantum physics. The two ambitious young women grew close in what became primarily a long-distance friendship as Charlie excelled in Hollywood as a screenwriter, and Helen thrived as a prominent physicist at MIT. Both had to overcome sexism, but Charlie also had to contend with sexual harassment and racism.
Their paths to motherhood agitated their families. Charlie married Terrence, a California surfer who her parents felt was far beneath her. They had a daughter, Simmi. At 36, Helen chose an anonymous sperm donor and had Jack. As the novel opens, Simmi and Jack are in elementary school, and Charlie is dead. Yet she seems to be calling and texting Helen.
There’s a fair amount of spookiness in physics, and the language is seductively poetic. Freudenberger (The Newlyweds, 2012) is exceptionally conversant in this heady realm, and her obvious pleasure in physics, including the mind-bending work at such facilities as the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) and the Large Hadron Collider, ensures that Helen is a mesmerizing narrator. Irresistibly forthright about her failings, she is laser-sharp professionally, and her urge to share her enthusiasm has inspired her to write internationally popular trade books. But she is stymied by the mystery of the increasingly unnerving texts sent from Charlie’s missing phone and by a tsunami of vivid memories.
As space and time curve and bend in electrifying flashbacks, Helen struggles through highly charged encounters with Charlie’s grieving and furious parents and traumatized Terrence and Simmi, who have moved to Boston to try to fill the void. Helen and Terrence circle each other warily, but Jack and Simmi bond instantly. And if all the emotional and logistical turmoil isn’t enough to distract Helen from her demanding schedule, physicist Neel, with whom she made the great discovery that brought her fame and tenure, and the man we begin to suspect may be her one true love, has also relocated from California. Triumphant over his part in a revolutionary breakthrough, the observation of gravitational waves, he is hoping to team up with Helen again, even as he invites her to his engagement party.
As more details emerge about Charlie’s suffering and death, about how her loved ones, each so astutely rendered and compelling, attempt to move on, and as Helen’s own thwarted desires collide, Freudenberger is spellbinding in her imaginative use of particle physics as a mirror of human entanglement and uncertainty. We do learn about Helen’s specialty—five-dimensional space-time and the dynamics of black holes—but Freudenberger is also postulating a profoundly resonant physics of emotions and longings, families and friendship, love and marriage, loss and mourning. As original as this deeply involving, substantial, suspenseful, and psychologically lush novel is, Freudenberger is in good company in her venture into the curious alignments among physics, memory, sorrow, and the fate of consciousness after death. There is precedence in physicist and grandly inventive novelist Alan Lightman’s Ghost (2007) and Reunion (2003), while in Einstein’s Dreams (1993) and Mr g (2012), Lightman translates quantum theory into keenly visualized alternative realities. In her brainy and glimmering novels, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein unites metaphysics, mathematics, physics, and complicated human interactions. The title of Jeanette Winterson’s novel Gut Symmetries (1997) is a tease: GUT is the acronym for the holy grail of physics, the grand unified theory. Other stellar physics-laced novels include Richard Powers’ A Time of Our Singing (2003); Charmed Particles, by Chrissy Kolaya (2015); and The Last Equation of Isaac Severy, by Nova Jacobs (2018). With daring, zest, insight, wit, and compassion, Lost and Wanted and its kindred novels gracefully and thrillingly bridge the divide between science and art.
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