Rachel Barenbaum's 'A Bend In The Stars' Tells A Tale Of Injustice And Romance

May 16, 2019
Originally published on May 17, 2019 1:11 pm

In 1914, Russia was on the brink of war, and Albert Einstein was on the brink of proving his theory of relativity.

These two threads intertwine in a new novel called A Bend in the Stars. The story centers on Vanya and Miri, Jewish siblings who might be able to avoid Vanya's certain death on the front lines — if he can prove that gravity bends light.

A Bend in the Stars is Rachel Barenbaum's first novel, and it's somehow a history of science, a story of injustice, a romance novel, and an adventure tale all at once. But Barenbaum says what first attracted her was the science. "I was reading this blurb in Scientific American in 2014, and it said a hundred years ago this month, Einstein was on the verge of proving relativity, and if he had only gotten to Russia or his team had gotten to Russia to photograph the total solar eclipse, he would have had his final piece of proof. He could have shown that gravity bends light. And I just thought before I even put the magazine down that that was a brilliant story idea. What if someone beat Einstein?"


Interview Highlights

On tackling relativity

I think maybe this is why — one of the reasons why I dug into it so deep and so hard — was because I think people shy away from relativity, from science. I hear a lot of people saying, oh, I don't do numbers. And I always wonder, well, why not, right? Some of these basic ideas — relativity is more philosophy, Einstein was more of a philosopher before he dug into the math, the proof of what he did. So I really want to be able to talk about it from the idea side, you know, not dig into the equation side.

On the ideas she wanted to explore

Well, for starters, time — especially around the turn of the century. Trains were popping up. There are a lot of trains in the book. And in order for trains to work, you need schedules. And in order for schedules to work, you need to agree on a clock. So a clock in Switzerland might be 15 minutes ahead of a clock in France. There was no central clock, central time that everything was set to. And the problem was there was no way for all the clocks to be started at the same time so that everyone could agree on an exact time. So this was the problem of simultaneity and exactly what Einstein was working on in the patent office where he started — famously started out. There were these ideas of using pneumatic tubes or, you know, all kinds of ways people were inventing to start clocks. And he realized really what we need to use is light ... We take it for granted now that, oh, you know, my plane is at 9 o'clock. I have to get there at 7 o'clock to go through, you know, security or whatever. But at the time, there was no standard schedule. That just blows my mind.

On the role of the Jewish lunar calendar in the book

So this again comes back to the question of time. I think I'm a little bit obsessed with this notion of time. Because the Jewish calendar is different from the Gregorian calendar that we use in the U.S., everything about it, including days — Jewish days start at sundown, not at midnight. And so I wanted to draw attention to this idea that there are different ways of tracking time, tracking days. But also there's a soul to the characters.

Two of the main characters are Jewish, Miri and Vanya. And you know, the turn of the century, anti-Semitism was rampant. Jews were Jews in Russia, not Russians. And so I wanted it to really come to the front of the book that being Jewish in Russia — it was a very hard time, and that was affecting their decisions — you know, what the characters were doing, where they were going and why.

On whether laws — of science or of Judaism — are meant to be broken

I think this goes to the heart of Einstein because Einstein — you know, he sat in his classes, and he said Newton was wrong. And at that point in time, Newton was the gold standard, right? Isaac Newton was the most brilliant, the genius that constructed all of the rules of the universe. And he challenged them, and he had the guts, the courage to stand up and say, maybe we're thinking about this wrong; maybe we need to look at life, the way the universe is working in a different way. And I think that is so important, so crucial to progress, to growing. And I think it's an important thing for everybody to think about.

This story was produced for radio by Hanna Bolanos and Jolie Myers, and adapted for the Web by Petra Mayer

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In 1914, Russia was on the brink of war, and Albert Einstein was on the brink of proving his theory of relativity. These two threads intertwine in a new novel called "A Bend In The Stars." The story centers on Vanya and Miri. They are Jewish siblings who might be able to escape Vanya's certain death on the frontlines if he can prove that gravity bends light. "A Bend In The Stars" is somehow a history of science, a story of injustice, a romance novel and an adventure tale. This is Rachel Barenbaum's first novel, and I began by asking her which of those threads was her starting point.

RACHEL BARENBAUM: I have to say it was really, for me, the science. I was reading this blurb in Scientific American in 2014, and it said a hundred years ago this month, Einstein was on the verge of proving relativity, and if he had only gotten to Russia or his team had gotten to Russia to photograph the total solar eclipse, he would have had his final piece of proof. He could have shown that gravity bends light. And I just thought before I even put the magazine down that that was a brilliant story idea. What if someone beat Einstein?

SHAPIRO: That idea of gravity bending light gives your book its title, "A Bend In The Stars." Did you have it from the beginning?

BARENBAUM: No. Actually in the beginning, I called it "The Measure Of Time," which is the name also of an essay by Henri Poincare, because really at its heart, the problem of relativity or the notion of relativity is really based in this question of, what is time? So time is a construct. We've invented it. What is a second? What is a minute? What is an hour? This notion of time is really what I was focused on.

SHAPIRO: For a first novel, this is such an ambitious project to take on, like, Einstein's theory of relativity and a century ago history of Russia. I mean, like, that's a big bite to take.

BARENBAUM: (Laughter) I guess. You know, I think maybe this is why - one of the reasons why I dug into it so deep and so hard - was because I think people shy away from relativity, from science. I hear a lot of people saying, oh, I don't do numbers. And I always wonder, well, why not, right? Some of these basic ideas - relativity is more philosophy. Einstein was more of a philosopher before he dug into the math, the proof of what he did. So I really want to be able to talk about it from the idea side, you know, not dig into the equation side.

SHAPIRO: What were the ideas that you wanted to explore?

BARENBAUM: Well, for starters, time, especially around the turn of the century. Trains were popping up. There are a lot of trains in the book.

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

BARENBAUM: And in order for trains to work, you need schedules. And in order for schedules to work, you need to agree on a clock. So a clock in Switzerland might be 15 minutes ahead of a clock in France. There was no central clock, central time that everything was set to. And the problem was there was no way for all the clocks to be started at the same time so that everyone could agree on an exact time. So this was the problem of simultaneity and exactly what Einstein was working on in the patent office where he started - famously started out. There were these ideas of using pneumatic tubes or, you know, all kinds of ways of people were inventing to start clocks. And he realized really what we need to use is light.

SHAPIRO: I'm just thinking what you're describing about, like, trains and schedules sounds like it could be really, really dry, and yet you manage to make it sort of this, like, thrilling adventure caper romance on the brink of war.

(LAUGHTER)

BARENBAUM: Yes, well, I mean, because it is a fascinating thing. We take it for granted now that, oh, you know, my plane is at 9 o'clock. I have to get there at 7 o'clock to go through, you know, security or whatever. But at the time, there was no standard schedule. That just blows my mind.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. Judaism is also central to your book. It's structured around the Jewish months of the lunar calendar. Why did you make this so central to the story?

BARENBAUM: So this again comes back to the question of time. (Laughter) I think I'm a little bit obsessed with this notion of time. Because the Jewish calendar is different from the Gregorian calendar that we use in the U.S., everything about it, including days - Jewish days start at sundown, not at midnight. And so I wanted to draw attention to this idea that there are different ways of tracking time, tracking days. But also there's a soul to the characters.

Two of the main characters are Jewish, Miri and Vanya. And you know, the turn of the century, anti-Semitism was rampant. Jews were Jews in Russia, not Russians. And so I wanted it to really come to the front of the book that being Jewish in Russia - it was a very hard time, and that was affecting their decisions - you know, what the characters were doing, where they were going and why.

SHAPIRO: Judaism also imposes rules and laws on your characters in the same way, you could argue, that science imposes rules and laws on the world. And there are these constant questions about whether laws are absolute and whether rules can be broken. How do you reconcile this question of whether rules and laws are immutable or made to be broken?

BARENBAUM: I think this goes to the heart of Einstein because Einstein - you know, he sat in his classes, and he said Newton was wrong. And at that point in time, Newton was the gold standard, right? Isaac Newton was the most brilliant, the genius that constructed all of the rules of the universe. And he challenged them, and he had the guts, the courage to stand up and say, maybe we're thinking about this wrong; maybe we need to look at life, the way the universe is working in a different way. And I think that is so important, so crucial to progress, to growing. And I think it's an important thing for everybody to think about.

SHAPIRO: Tell me about your own path. I know you went to Harvard Business School. You worked at a hedge fund. This is your first novel. How did you find your way to this?

BARENBAUM: So I have been writing novels pretty much forever.

(LAUGHTER)

BARENBAUM: Since the third grade I've been writing. I have always wanted to be a writer.

SHAPIRO: The third grade novel has yet to be published.

BARENBAUM: (Laughter) Yes, that...

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

BARENBAUM: That's still in the drawer, but maybe I'll revise it next.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

BARENBAUM: I just have always wanted to do it, and, you know, I couldn't afford it coming out of college. And I actually remember my second year at Harvard undergrad, I had a creative writing class with Jamaica Kincaid.

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

BARENBAUM: And she's an amazing, incredibly talented writer. And she sat me down, and she said, you know, if you're going to be a writer, if you're going to write fiction, you need to spend all of your time writing fiction. And at the time, that was this crushing blow because there was no way I could afford (laughter) to - you know, to write full time coming out of college. I had loans, and you know, I was already working at the gym, handing out towels. Like, I - you know, I couldn't do it. So I went into business, and that was an easy way to pay off those loans - and, you know, sort of worked my way up and my courage up to the point where I finally said in 2015 I'm going to do this full-time.

SHAPIRO: This might be a stretch, but I feel like your characters are sort of rewriting the path that life has laid out for them, and what you've just described sounds like a way of doing the same thing.

BARENBAUM: It's funny. Yes, I mean, I think, again, back to this idea of Einstein and challenging the base - right? - the base of what you believe, I think that we can always turn around and change our path and change who we are. And, you know, we need to just have the courage to look up and say, what am I doing? Where am I going, and is this where I want to be?

SHAPIRO: Rachel Barenbaum, congratulations on your debut novel, and thanks for talking with us about it.

BARENBAUM: Thank you so much, Ari. I really appreciate it.

SHAPIRO: Her book is called "A Bend In The Stars." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.