The Goddess of Small Victories

The Goddess of Small VictoriesThe Goddess of Small Victories by Yannick Grannec
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

A novel with two parallel storylines ought to be in a state of dynamic equilibrium, with forces from both narratives balancing and advancing each other. The Goddess of Small Victories does not achieve that balance. Adele Gödel, the goddess, relates the small victories,the daily balancing acts she performed to keep her frail, unstable husband from collapsing under the weight of his genius, eccentricities, and paranoia. Her husband, Kurt Gödel, was the mathematician whose Incompleteness Theorums revolutionized higher mathematics by proving that axioms within a closed system cannot be proven from within that system. She found that to be true in her life, as well, since she was excluded from the processes and debates that Gödel and his circle debated endlessly, without much reference to the mundane world without.

She relates these stories in flashbacks, as she lies dying in a nursing home, to Ann Roth, an archivist at the Institute for Advanced Study, whose director tasks her with acquiring Godel's papers. Anna is not a stranger to the IAS, having been raised nearby in an atmosphere that rewarded the type of excellence it represented, and left her feeling unnecessary when she did not reach its level.

In alternating chapters, the women share stories from their lives - Adele's price for considering Anna's request. Adele talks about being a dancer in Vienna who marries the almost-unknowable Kurt. His lifestyle demands are specific and constricting; they are the matrix he requires to survive. Their lives are turned to chaos by the beginnings of World War II. Before they can escape Austria, they endure a terrifying encounter with Hitler's street thugs, who bully Kurt and equate mathematicians with Jewishness. A grueling trip across Siberia and the Pacific lands them in the United States, and, eventually, at Princeton. This is a fit destination for Gödel. Not so, initially, for Adele, whose English is weak and whose life is ruled by Kurt's demands.

Some of Adele's small victories are the bits of respect from her husband's genius friends, including Robert Oppenheimer and Albert Einstein. They become regulars at the Gödel house, where they discuss mathematics, physics, politics, and metaphysics while praising her cooking. Decades later, Adele has learned enough to repeat and discuss some of the concepts with Anna, as if to prove her own worth after many years of having been nearly invisible in her husband's world.

Anna's story? Almost irrelevant. She, too, is a handmaiden to the geniuses of the Institute. The details are not particularly compelling until she begins to take some chances, goaded by the still-vibrant Adele.

The weakness of Anna's story is compounded by the portions of Adele's that read like extended Cliff's notes for concepts that range from Gaussian curves, quantum mechanics versus Newtonian physics, set theory, variable infinities, and amicable numbers. The metaphysics delve into whether the existence of God can be proven through mathematics. Even a slightly-knowledgeable admirer of these subjects will lose the narrative thread while reading fictional discussions that alternate between the paradoxes inherent in time travel, and the excellence of Adele's cooking.

The book includes copious footnotes, afternotes, and a thorough dissection of what (and who) is fictional in the book. Students of these subjects may find them useful. I found it disturbing that the author takes the position that came to believe in God, since one of his last lettters disproves it. The book was, overall, disappointing. Two stars for interesting me enough to read up on amicable numbers.

I received an ARC from NetGalley. This is a fair review.

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The Romanov Sisters

The Romanov SistersThe Romanov Sisters by Helen Rappaport
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

All biographies are written in the context of history. The question facing a biographer -  how to balance the lives of individual flesh-and-blood people with the events - is made even more difficult when the events were, to a degree, controlled by the people she is writing about.

What Helen Rappaport has achieved in The Romanov Sisters is a portrait of a family that could be any family, save for the exigencies of dynastic marriage, unimaginable wealth, and the paradigm-shattering events of the early twentieth century. These four sisters - Olga, Tatiana, Maria, and Anastasia - were real babies, real flesh-and-blood children, awkward teenagers, and accomplished young women, and they were murdered as political prisoners.

The reader learns about each girl as she passes through each stage of a young life. One girl is quiet, one is rambunctious; one cares about clothing and hair, one has a weight issue. Each life is detailed with precision and objectivity, without judgement. And, each sister is shown to have been loving, caring, and tender towards her parents, and her grievously-ill brother, Alexei.

One stunning part of the book deals with the royal family's response to the European War. Alexandra, Olga and Tatiana became fully-trained, full-fledged nurses who worked countless hours in the most dramatic areas of the hospitals by day, dressing horrific wounds, participating in amputations and treatment of hideous gangrene, while returning to the hospitals by night to sew linens, roll bandages, and knit garments for soldiers. Both sisters had reached an age where most would be developing crushes on young, handsome men. Both did.

The younger sisters also worked amongst the suffering wounded, as well as doing the expected visits and reviews. Even Alexei served by accompanying his father to battle areas, despite the danger to his fragile health.

This was a family that understood duty beyond noblesse oblige, and set aside its own comfort to serve the victims of politics. As a family of father, mother, and children, it was quite normal. Alexandra was disdained because she breast-fed her children instead of hiring a wet-nurse. The children were simultaneously considered ill-mannered (by sniffy outsiders) and refreshingly typical (by other outsiders). Royalty, privilege, and wealth could not cure Alexei or ease his suffering. Rasputin, both rake and staretz, provided some relief. Rappaport reports, but does not judge.

This biography is written in a detailed, yet clear and flowing voice that leads the reader through the tangles of dynastic interrelationships as easily as it describes the daily life of a doomed family.  It leaves judgments and comparisons up to the reader.

Highly recommended.

I received an ARC from NetLibrary. This is an honest review.

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