California Literary Review

Dancing With Einstein by Kate Wenner

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April 11th, 2007 at 11:23 am

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Dancing With Einstein
by Kate Wenner
Simon & Schuster Adult Publishing Group, 223 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★★★

A Baby Boomer and the Atom Bomb

Combining fact with fiction, Kate Wenner’s “Dancing with Einstein” is a carefully crafted novel that manages to wrap a piece of history into beautiful alliterative prose with its portrait of a young woman struggling to make sense of her life.

When the novel opens, it is 1975 and the protagonist, Marea Hoffman, (named after the dark seas of the moon) is approaching her 30th birthday. She returns to New York after seven years of traveling the world, desperate to finally “settle down” and make peace with her demons.

Those demons stem from the fact that as a child growing up in the 50s in Princeton, her father, Jonas, a Holocaust survivor, was a nuclear physicist involved in the Manhattan project, and a close friend of Albert Einstein.

It takes a great deal of chutzpah for a writer to even think about creating a relationship between a fictional character and one of the world’s greatest men of all time, let alone a believable one. But thankfully, Kate Wenner manages to do just that.

As a small child, Marea used to sit on Einstein’s lap, waltz around the living room with him, and call him “Grandpa.” But despite the initial closeness between Einstein and Jonas, tensions in the Hoffman household eventually become strained as both Einstein and Jonas’s wife, Virginia, – a confirmed pacifist – object to him working on the hydrogen bomb. In one touching scene, Marea sits on Einstein’s lap in his study and asks:

“Why is my father helping Dr. Teller make a bigger bomb?”

“…This makes you sad.”

Marea didn’t want him to see her cry, but her tears were already dropping to the rug.

“Come here my princess.”

“…Don’t tell him,” she murmured into her grandpa’s sweater.

“…You know my little one, when I feel sad, I play my violin. When you feel sad, I think you should dance. You dance our oompah-pah, oompah-pah. Play the music in your own mind and dance around the room.”

Ultimately, the rift between Marea’s father and Einstein grows too large and the two never speak or see each other again, leaving a huge void in Marea’s young life and a great deal of resentment towards her father. When Einstein dies on April 18, 1955, Wenner writes:

He would never again come marching up the path to Sunday dinner holding a peony to slip behind Marea’s ear. He would never again help her with her homework or watch television with her and howl at Sid Caesar doing the professor. He would never again dance her around the room whistling ‘The Merry Widow Waltz’ through his mustache.

And then, when Marea is 12, her father is killed in a car accident after an unresolved argument with his wife that sees him pack his bags and leave their Princeton home to drive to Los Alamos to work on the H-bomb.

As a child Marea is terrorized by nightmares of nuclear war that follow her into adulthood. She is constantly haunted by the death of her father, never knowing if it was truly an accident or if he committed suicide. Blaming her mother for her parents’ failed marriage, the women’s strained relationship does little to help Marea uncover the truth.

With such weighty issues, it would be very easy for Marea Hoffman to become a self-absorbed, self-pitying soap opera character weighed down with hidden family secrets, and festering resentments.

Instead, Wenner chooses a brilliant plot device by sending Marea to not one but four separate therapists simultaneously – all of whom provide Marea with different ways to approach her problems. As a result, Wenner has created a novel that shifts effortlessly from pain and anguish to humor and self-deprecation. And Marea’s journey of self-discovery is vulnerable, touching, and poignant.

Not one to insult her reader’s sensibilities, Wenner does not provide a gift-wrapped solution for Marea. Indeed, Marea’s mother tells her daughter as she attempts to uncover the truth surrounding her father’s death:

“He was a brilliant man, Marea. Too brilliant not to realize what he had done. This is not a tidy answer, but I’ve not found life to provide tidy answers.”

Many of the answers Marea seeks are eventually found in a diary her father kept. And while the diary is a well-worn plot device in any novel, in “Dancing with Einstein” it’s used to brilliant effect, providing a fascinating account of 1950s America, its obsession with atomic power, and the Cold War era.

Indeed, Wenner’s novel is borne out of her own childhood fears of the atom bomb while growing up in the 50s. But perhaps her greatest achievement with this novel is her ability to write fluidly and shift seamlessly amidst time and space – something that would surely have met with the approval of Einstein himself.

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