From the author of the best-selling Einstein’s Dreams comes a wonderfully original, deeply moving, and wryly funny novel about the clash between the absolutes of science and the vagaries of human experience.
Bennett always knew he would live a life of science. From the homemade rockets and experiments of his childhood to the complex equations he solved as a professor of physics, his vision has transformed the uncertainty and frailty of life into an order and beauty that he inhabits with deep satisfaction. But his vision betrays him, revealing a profound incompleteness, an inadequacy to confront the contradictions his life: the black maid who raises him and loves him but cannot welcome him into her own house, the mentally absent father who wishes he’d died a hero in World War II, the self-destructive wife who invites Bennett’s cruelty. As Bennett struggles between reason and intuition, he slowly learns to allow the imperfections of daily life—the chaos he has worked so hard to control—to broaden his understanding of the world and his place in it.
Written with lyrical sparseness, hilarity mixed with sadness, the story of Bennett’s struggle becomes both a beautifully rendered portrait of the emotional life of a scientist and a resonant tale of the disillusionment that haunts us all.
A more prosaic work than his ingenious Einstein's Dreams, Lightman's second novel is a disillusioned bildungsroman about a physicist, Bennett Lang, who ends up discovering how little he knows of the world and its people. Told in self-contained, spare vignettes, the story chronicles a series of failed relationships between Lang and family, friends or lovers. Counterbalancing these personal affairs is the physicist's competitive scientific career, from boyhood rocket experiments to graduate school equation-crunching and academic intrigue. While trying to purify himself mathematically, Lang runs into the unpredictable human element, which has led to his Ph.D. advisor's dwindling productivity and an eccentric colleague's inability to publish but which inspires Lang to his personal breakthrough in problem-solving. Ultimately, Lang realizes that his constrained universe has squeezed out the people closest to him, such as his ne'er-do-well uncle, addicted to gambling and household repair, and his wife, whose painting is at odds with his ambitions for her. Despite an array of well-drawn secondary characters, a sense of anticlimax pervades the book like background radiation, and, after the compulsive readability of his dreaming Einstein, the appeal of Lightman's new protagonist, though not inconsequential, has a short half-life.