One of our recommended books is Half Life by Jillian Cantor

HALF LIFE

A Novel


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.

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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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  • Harper Perennial
  • Paperback
  • March 2021
  • 416 Pages
  • 9780062969880

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$16.99

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About Jillian Cantor

Jillian Cantor is the author of Half LifeJillian Cantor is the author of award-winning and bestselling novels for adults and teens, including In Another Time, The Hours Count, Margot, and The Lost Letter, which was a USA Today bestseller. She has a BA in English from Penn State University and an MFA from the University of Arizona. Cantor lives in Arizona with her husband and two sons.

Praise

“Thought-provoking, skillfully written, and hard to put down.” Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“Cantor has created an absorbing biographical novel and performed an engaging riff on the “what if” ponderings we all experience.” -Booklist

“Jillian Cantor’s beautifully written Half Life is a poignant exploration of ambition, family, gender, and love. I couldn’t put down this tender, nuanced, and inspiring novel. This is a book for anyone who’s ever been torn by conflicting passions and loyalties; in other words, this is a book for all of us. A dazzling must-read.” -Jean Kwok, New York Times bestselling author of Searching for Sylvie Lee and Girl in Translation

“In her riveting new novel, Half Life, Jillian Cantor explores not only the fascinating inner life of the famous scientist Marie Curie but also the life that might have been if she’d chosen love over science in her early years, a determination that would have irrevocably altered the face of science and history. This thoughtful, compelling story delves into issues faced by modern women, while inviting readers to ruminate on their own life choices and the domino-effect of those decisions.” -Marie Benedict, New York Times bestselling author of Lady Clementine and The Only Woman in the Room

Discussion Questions

1. You have a choice. There is always a choice. This refrain is echoed throughout the book, both by Maryaand Marie. Do you agree or disagree with this sentiment? Do you believe Marya and Marie both truly have choices? Why or why not?

2. Marya’s life splits into two versions in 1891 when she makes one simple choice: she decides to get on the train to Paris to further her education. Or she stays in Poland and marries Kaz. What do you believe is the greatest impact of this one choice on Marya’s life? On Marie’s? What about on the world as a whole? On science?

3. Compare and contrast the circumstances and opportunity for Marya in Poland and Marie in Paris. How much do you think environment and opportunity for women shapes each one of their lives? Which one do you believe ultimately lives a better life?

4. Marya and Marie are technically the same person, and yet many of their choices and actions diverge in different ways throughout the novel. Discuss the ways in which their characters are ultimately similar. Different?

5. Both Marie and Marya have an important relationship with Pierre Curie. How does the scope of Pierre’s life, and work, change in each woman’s story? What is the importance of Pierre as a character throughout the novel?

6. What is most important in Marie’s life: love or science? What about in Marya’s? Which woman has the better love story? Which woman made the greatest contribution to science?

7. Both Marie and Marya say, “My body was not built to carry a baby.” But how is pregnancy ultimately different for each of them, based upon their circumstances? Who becomes a better mother, Marya or Marie? How and why does Klara turn out differently than Irene and Eve?

8. In Marie’s story line, Leokadia marries Kaz but gives up her piano career. In Marya’s, Leokadia pursues piano professionally and never marries, but she is still drawn to Kaz. Which life is a better life for her? Why do you think she still finds her way to Kaz in both storylines?

9. Near the end, Marya clings to her sisters’ hands and says they are “three old women, forever connected to one another by blood and by love. And yes, by science, too.” Marie is similarly connected to her sisters at the end of her life. But Bronia’s and Hela’s lives turn out drastically different in the two storylines. Compare and contrast their lives in both stories. Discuss which storyline is better for Bronia? For Hela? How do Marya’s actions irrevocably change her sisters’ lives, in ways both good and bad?

10. From Poland to Paris to the rocky cliffs of Brittany to the front lines of WWI what role does setting play in the novel? How does the setting help inform and shape Marya’s life differently from Marie’s?

11. In the very end, Eve plays piano for Marie and Klara plays it for Marya. What role does music play both here and throughout the book? How is the piano both different and the same for Marie and for Marya?

12. The book opens and closes with Marie on her deathbed, examining the choices she made in her personal life: love, marriage, education, motherhood. But in the very end she thinks that radium is everything, the only thing.What do you think she means by this? What is the importance of radium in both Marie’s life and her death? How is this different in Marya’s story?

13. Marya thinks that Half Life is such a funny term, so unscientific. While Marie thinks in the end that the Half Life of radium is 1600 years, that her radium will long outlive her. Why is the novel called Half Life? Discuss both the scientific and personal significance of that term for Marya and for Marie.

Excerpt

Marie

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.

MAMAN. ÈVE’S VOICE AGAIN.

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.

He?

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.