Dancing with Einsteinby Kate Wenner
From the acclaimed author of Setting Fires, this highly original new novel offers a protagonist so intensely felt and so compassionately rendered that readers will not easily let her go at the novel's end. She is Marea Hoffman, who, after wandering the world for seven years, has returned to New York at age thirty with the intention of starting her real life.
But Marea approaches everything in her own idiosyncratic style, and she is soon seeing four different therapists simultaneously and telling her story to each in a different way. The story she reveals is about her childhood in 1950s Princeton during the age of "duck and cover" drills and McCarthyism, when fear of communism obsessed America. Marea's father, a Holocaust survivor, worked on the Manhattan Project and later on the development of the hydrogen bomb; her mother was a confirmed pacifist.
Frightened by her early exposure to the threat of nuclear annihilation, young Marea finds comfort in the company of her father's colleague and friend, the grandfatherly Albert Einstein. Einstein charms Marea even as he provokes the wrenching moral debate that will drive her parents apart. When Einstein disappears from Marea's life as suddenly as he entered it and her father is killed in a mysterious car accident, she is left alone with a mother she no longer trusts and with questions that won't go away.
Nearly two decades later, during the August hiatus from her four therapists, Marea takes a reluctant trip home to Princeton. There her eyes are newly opened to the past when she uncovers her father's secret Cold War diary.
Weaving back and forth between 1970s New York and 1950s Princeton, Wenner's exploration of the impact that history can have on a young life is powerful and moving -- a deeply intelligent look at the challenge of finding hope in the modern age.
Donna Seaman Book List (Starred Review) The narrator of Wenner's achingly beautiful new novel is named Marea, after the dark seas of the moon, and it is clear that she is not like most people. About to turn 30 and a touch mystical, she has been wandering the world alone for seven years in the clutch of a cosmic depression stemming from her unusual childhood. Her Holocaust survivor father was a nuclear physicist involved in the Manhattan Project. Albert Einstein was a family friend. Marea suffered from horrific nightmares about atomic war, and her pacifist mother and Einstein both objected to Marea's father's work on the hydrogen bomb, a conflict that remained painfully unresolved when he died in a car crash. Marea is now in New York, trying to stay anchored and make sense of her life by seeing four radically different therapists, a loaded situation Wenner handles with great wit and purpose. Finally, Marea's mother hands over her father's diary, thus allowing Wenner's haunted, empathic, and intriguing protagonist to come to terms with her personal legacy while Wenner brilliantly parses the terrible ethos of the atomic bomb and celebrates the power of stories, the lifeblood of the talking cure.
Pat Conroy Dancing With Einstein is one of those astonishing novels that has it all: intelligence, humor, eroticism, and a strong emotional power.
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Read an Excerpt
from Chapter One
As she crosses Washington Square Park on the diagonal path, she hears a violin playing into the quiet morning and recognizes Mozart. Marea has no particular aptitude for music, has never studied an instrument, but has a deep regard for anyone who does. It was one of Grandpa Albert's most adamant lessons, that music is a source of happiness. He would unpack his violin, tuck it under his chin, and his eyes would drift closed with the pleasure of being reunited with his true love. Afterward they would sit in the small living room in the brick house on Blossom Street, Marea, her father, and her Grandpa Albert, while her mother worked in the kitchen finishing up the last preparations for their Sunday supper. Marea would crouch on the rug and try to solve the riddle of a new wooden puzzle her grandpa had brought her, while above her head the two men spoke in their peculiar language of time and light and a bending universe. In these early years of their friendship, there were no arguments, and it was only when they all sat down at the table that the conversation turned to world events. That was another language Marea had to try to understand. Without knowing the meaning of all the words, she listened to the melody of it. The room filled with the talk and laughter that was missing when she had her meals alone with her parents. When Marea climbed into her Grandpa Albert's lap, it was because she hoped that with her arms anchored around his waist, he wouldn't be able to leave. But then she would wake up in her bed in the dark and know she had failed her watch, and that she and her parents were alone again.
In the late afternoon, Marea wakes into her white room. It takes some moments to know what city she is in, where she slept, how she got there. She is accustomed to this process of waking and getting her bearings, accustomed to getting up in the night and not knowing the direction of the bathroom, accustomed to searching for the sounds and smells that will situate her. Once she realizes that it is June, that she has returned to America and has a job as a baker's assistant, that this room is paid for and hers, she relaxes between her new sheets and luxuriates in the warm summer air coming through the window. From someone else's open window she can hear the plaintive tune of "Eleanor Rigby." The song penetrates Marea's skin, and she rolls onto her side, pulling her knees to her chest. She is used to sadness coming like that, like a breath.
Into sadness and out of sadness. The ache in the arches of her feet brings back the pleasures of her night's work, the rows of loaves resting in their pans like a nursery ward of babies sleeping in their bassinets.
Dropping her head over the edge of the mattress, Marea checks the classified listings in the Village Voice that lies open on the floor. The night before she found a page with the heading "Getting Better All the Time." Now she reads through the alphabetized listings: A for Arica, E for EST, F for Feminist and Freudian, G for Gestalt and Group. Hydro, Jungian, Transactional, Yogic. Has she made a mistake, committing to Dr. Angela Iris, a name from a stranger's address book?
For seven years Marea has made decisions on the slightest whim, but lately she has begun to feel anxious about the passage of time. Her thirtieth birthday is only weeks away, and she has the notion that whoever she is and wherever she is on that date will determine her fate. Will she continue to drift -- or will she finally find some mooring to call home?
Every year of her travels Marea has dutifully telephoned home on her birthday. The calls have been an effort to be considerate of her mother. Their relationship has never been easy. Marea didn't blame her mother for her father's death, but on the day he died something between them came apart and was never repaired.
In each of these annual birthday calls Marea's mother has grown more insistent on her recommendation that Marea go into therapy. This is not because Virginia particularly believes in therapy, but because it is what experts and other mothers have advised her is the best way to help such an aimless child. Marea knows that in her heart her mother believes in willpower, not therapy. After all, it was willpower that got her through the dark days after her husband's fatal car crash. She had no time to mourn, as she told Marea many times, a point of pride or perhaps resentment. To supplement her husband's pension and support her daughter and herself, Virginia chose to tutor the children of her middle-class friends and neighbors. Her dining room table was stacked high with every textbook used in the Princeton public schools, and Marea shared long afternoons with the students her mother triumphantly saved from failure.
Marea tears out a listing from the Village Voice, though she knows her mother would never consider the Village Voice an appropriate place to find a therapist, no more appropriate than the address book of a man picked up in a bar. According to the advertisement, as part of its training program the New York Psychoanalytic Institute is offering psychoanalysis free of charge to qualified candidates. Interviews required, minimum commitment of one year.
It was the word "institute" that caught Marea's eye. An institute suggests permanence, a place that predates its present members and will outlive them. The Princeton Institute for Advanced Study had predated its star, Albert Einstein, and had long outlived both Einstein and Marea's father.
Marea remembers one spring afternoon when she slipped out of her father's office and went quietly down the thick-carpeted corridors to the office where Grandpa Albert worked, often with nothing but a pencil and a pad. Whenever she came to visit, he would be staring out the window, or gazing off into space, or at the wall. Was he lonely sitting there all by himself? He never seemed to mind when she appeared alongside his desk, waiting for him to pat his thigh, the invitation for her to climb into his lap. Even though she was almost six years old now, his lap was still one of her favorite places to be.
"My young professor, what is it you have to report of your fine observations of human nature?" His words smelled of pipe tobacco as she leaned back against the scratchy wool of his sweater.
"A boy at my school says scientists can't believe in God."
"What a very big subject for a Friday afternoon."
"He's wrong, because if God didn't make the world, scientists wouldn't have anything to study."
"Perhaps this young fellow is imagining a God who sits on a throne and has a long white beard. I do not know if such a gentleman had so much to do with the creation of the universe. When scientists imagine God, they think of a mystery, something very special that cannot be explained."
Her father was at the door. He knew where to look for her whenever she slipped out of his office. He would scold her for bothering Professor Einstein while he was working, but Marea knew her father liked the excuse to come down the hall himself. Then Marea got to listen to their funny conversations. Once Grandpa Albert insisted that if a spacecraft could travel fast enough, the man inside wouldn't have to shave because he'd return from his voyage before he left.
"Marea, why are you disturbing Professor Einstein?"
"Marea has brought us a question to discuss."
"We're talking about God," Marea said importantly.
Jonas Hoffman leaned against the doorjamb. "God?"
"Marea wants to know if you can be a scientist and still believe in God."
"I know you can," Marea said. "It was stupid Alfie Martin. He says his father is an atheist, that smart people have to be atheists. I think Alfie wanted to show off that he could say a big word."
"What do you say, Jonas? Can a scientist believe in God?"
Marea saw her father drift away to his sadness, and she felt bad, as she always did when his mouth tightened and his eyes looked far away. "Alfie Martin is stupid," she declared.
Einstein put his finger to Marea's cheek. "A scientist sees the proof of God in every squirrel and rose." He turned to Jonas. "But God's existence is more difficult to believe when we examine the affairs of man."
The following Sunday when Grandpa Albert came for supper, he brought Marea a puzzle to work out, an assortment of colored blocks that had to be arranged into a perfect cube. They worked on the puzzle together alone in the living room while her mother finished cooking supper. Her father had driven off early that morning to a faraway place called New Mexico, where he would work for the rest of the summer. Before he left he had spread out the map to show Marea exactly where he would be, and he promised to send picture postcards of cactuses as tall as three-story buildings. Marea had stood at the end of the driveway long after her mother had gone back inside the house. When Marea had asked why they weren't all going together, her parents had looked at each other and waited to see which one would explain.
The smells of roasting chicken and baking pie wafted from the kitchen as Marea leaned against her Grandpa Albert and watched him contemplate the colored blocks. Marea didn't want to be doing a puzzle. She wanted to be with her father, driving to a magical place with giant cactuses and Indian mothers with papooses on their backs. Marea went to the piano and lifted the keyboard lid. With her index finger she tapped on the highest notes, pleasing herself with the tinkling sound they made and looking out of the corner of her eye to see if her grandpa was watching. When he continued moving the colored blocks around, trying out one combination and another, she used both her fists to pound the keyboard until Einstein threw up his hands and barked at her, "You must stop that awful sound!"
"Play me a song," Marea demanded.
"I will play something my ears can stand!"
Triumphantly, Marea flopped down on the piano bench, leaving room for her grandpa to sit beside her. He was a stomping bear at the piano, not soft as he was with his violin beneath his chin. Now he threw his whole body into the oompah-pah of the "Merry Widow Waltz," and his sandals slapped the pedals. "Get up, get up!" he ordered Marea off the piano bench. "Go dancing!"
Obediently, Marea marched around the room, swinging her arms like the leader of a band.
"This is not dancing!" Einstein exclaimed, and pushed back the piano bench. "Like this, my silly princess." He held out his hands to her. "Oompah-pah, oompah-pah," he sang as he swung her hands in his, and then he set out spinning her around the room. They sang together, louder and louder, and as they raised their feet high and pounded the floor, Marea forgot all about her father's car disappearing into the silent Sunday morning. But then Einstein stopped and flattened his hand against his heart. Breathing heavily, he told Marea that he had to sit down. He dropped onto the living room couch, tipped back his head, closed his eyes, and in a little while he was snoring.
Marea stepped in close to examine the dark creases in his long face and the sunken wells around his eyes that were as deep and dark as pitted plums. She studied the shape of his nose with its small round bulb at the end, the hair that curled around his long ears. Though she knew people called him the father of the atomic bomb, she had never told him about her nightmare of atomic bombs dropping out of an airplane like a mother cat giving birth to black kittens. She never told him about the dream that came back again and again and made her cry, her dream of waking up after an atomic bomb and being the only person left alive. Marea loved her Grandpa Albert, and she knew it was wrong to make people feel bad about their mistakes.
Copyright © 2004 by Kate Wenner
Meet the Author
Kate Wenner was raised in California during the 1950s, graduated from Harvard, and traveled throughout Europe, the Middle East, East Africa, and Central and South America before moving to New York, where she spent fourteen years as an award-winning producer for ABC's 20/20. Wenner is the author of the novel Setting Fires and a memoir, Shamba Letu: An American Girl's Adventures in Africa. She lives in New York City and the Berkshires with her husband, artist Gil Eisner, and their two children.
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