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Few things bother Nell Freudenberger more than the way girls and women are still so often held back from studying science. For her new novel, Lost and Wanted, which follows Helen, an eminent theoretical physicist and single mother, as she mourns the death of her closest friend, Freudenberger set out to teach herself as much physics as she could. Growing up in New York City, she was, like so many other young women, encouraged to believe she didn’t “have the right kind of brain for it”. After doing badly in a maths test in her teens, she was told by a teacher that she might as well quit, and by the time she reached Harvard, hoping to study medicine, she was so far behind that “I couldn’t even take a remedial math class”.
Abandoning the idea of medical school, she travelled in Asia after college, teaching English for a year in Thailand, and then found early success as a writer, publishing her first story in the New Yorker in her mid-20s after being discovered during an internship there. She hopes her own two children will keep going with maths, “especially my daughter”, but fears they won’t. “It breaks my heart,” she says of the new book, “to see people on social media, especially women, saying: ‘I’d like to read this book but I’m a little intimidated, it sounds like it might be hard.’ Please give it a chance. It doesn’t have to be my book; you can read any of the books in the acknowledgments, just read one and prove to yourself that you can understand it. Someone has told you you can’t.”
She notes that, unfortunately, it’s not only in schools that people are hearing these harmful messages. Indignant, she mentions a lecture given last year at Cern by Italian physicist Alessandro Strumia, who said that physics was “invented and built by men, it’s not by invitation”, and claimed that women receive fewer citations in the field because differences in brain structure make them less capable of high level research (Strumia has since been suspended by Cern). “It seems almost like those arguments aren’t worth answering – but apparently they need to be answered,” says Freudenberger. For her own part, she found the process of researching the scientific concepts in Lost and Wanted “thrilling”, spending hours in conversation with physicists and reading papers on quantum entanglement. “One of the really beautiful things about the physics world,” she says, is that all the literature is made available online for anyone to read, and she found that researchers were “exceedingly warm and open and eager to explain their work”. Such was her excitement that a friend who read an early draft of the novel had to gently tell her to cool it on the science.
All three of Freudenberger’s previous works of fiction, Lucky Girls, The Dissident and The Newlyweds, focus on cultures she did not grow up in, and for her, as she worked on Lost and Wanted, physics became “sort of another country”, giving her “that heightened sense of experience that I get from travelling”. After her early success in the New Yorker, Freudenberger’s story collection Lucky Girls won the PEN/Malamud award, she received a Guggenheim fellowship and a Whiting award and appeared on the New Yorker’s “20 under 40” list in 2010. This time around, she “did not start out to write a book about a physicist”, and had first intended the novel to be “more personal” – in an early abandoned version, the first-person narrator was a novelist: “I should have known how boring that would be,” she laughs. “I don’t know what I was thinking!” She found that she couldn’t sustain her own interest when “trying to do something that’s too close to home”. “I wanted to write a book about a woman who was passionate about her work,” she says, “but the book was just sort of dead on the page.” There was an astrophysicist in that draft, “a minor character, and he was male, like the only astrophysicists I had ever known”. Then it occurred to her that she could rewrite it, giving her protagonist a new profession.
When Freudenberger’s publishers initially asked her, “Did you intend to write somebody who was so cold?” she replied: “I was just trying to write about myself!” More seriously, she talks about wanting to explore a narrator who “keeps secrets from herself. I was thinking about Chang-Rae Lee’s A Gesture Life or Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day – of someone who has a real distance between what they’re thinking and what they’re feeling, their feelings are not always clear to them.” Not that she espouses the notion that scientists see the world differently from nonscientists in any fundamental way. When she asked one physicist whether there was something in daily life that he thinks about differently because he’s a physicist, he eventually said: “Well, I’m not afraid when I’m on a plane, because I know exactly how planes work.”
Lost and Wanted is divided into sections titled “Entanglement”, “Gravity” and “Uncertainty”, but Freudenberger was aware of the dangers of misusing scientific metaphor, knowing that a person like her protagonist “would disdain the lazy use of the uncertainty principle – novelists and playwrights love the uncertainty principle.” Nonetheless, she says, “the concepts just seemed to go with what was happening emotionally for the characters: entanglement is such a beautiful metaphor for friendship, and the collision of two black holes and the gravitational waves that emanate from them is so much like what happens with grief.” Her approach changed after a conversation with a physicist who was using figurative language to explain something to her about black holes, and who gave her something like a “permission slip” for metaphor. “He said: ‘You know, our three-dimensional brains are not equipped to understand these things without analogies – you just have to make sure that the analogies are the right ones.’”
The emotional centre of the novel is grief, and while revising the book, Freudenberger lost a close friend, the composer Michael Friedman, who died unexpectedly in his early 40s and to whom the novel is dedicated. She compares the initial shock of losing someone to the feeling she had after childbirth: “I couldn’t believe that there were people just going about their regular business. I thought I must be a different type of creature, like I didn’t really feel human any more. You just feel so separate from anybody else who hasn’t had the exact same experience.”
In one memorable scene Helen goes to the Harvard office of a professor, whose inappropriate advances towards her late friend Charlie had ended her promising academic career years before. The professor is suave and engaged, discussing the finer points of Helen’s book on black holes, giving her his insights on Rousseau, modernity, love and moral ambiguity. It takes him a short while to figure out her connection to his former student.
Freudenberger, though she “certainly didn’t set out to write something that had to do with #MeToo”, was interested in how common it is for people to “describe their lives being completely derailed” by small, subtle interactions. It’s rarely a clear case of wrongdoing that can be called out, she observes, and yet so many people have ended up in entirely different careers from the ones they intended to pursue because, say, “that would have entailed asking him for a recommendation and I didn’t want to do that”. She gives her professor character arguments taken from Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger, though, she says: “I hate to borrow from somebody who I really admire personally and intellectually and give some of their ideas to a nefarious character. But I wanted him to be intellectually appealing in the way that professors are, to be able to make his case.”
The argument made so often by creepy professors to justify crossing the line with their students – “but literature is about love, teaching is about seduction” – strikes her as important to address. We all fall in love with professors, male or female, regardless of sexual preference, she says. “It doesn’t really have to do with that. You fall in love with someone’s mind. And professors have to figure out how to behave with their students.”
So many different obstacles can scotch a woman’s academic career, whether in the arts or the sciences. Freudenberger experienced sexism early in her own trajectory, all the small indignities and public underminings that came along with her first lucky break: “having my picture taken, having articles written about whether I was just having the story published because my picture looked nice, because I was 26”. Now, though, she is above all “grateful” to have fulfilling work that involves the pursuit of ideas, that fills her days with the “dislocated dreamy feeling” that comes from hours of writing, and that she captures in describing Helen’s experience of her research in physics. Freudenberger knows very well how rare a gift that is.
• Lost and Wanted by Nell Freudenberger is published by Viking (RRP £14.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p on all online orders over £15.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Nell Freudenberger: ‘Like many women I believed I didn’t have the right kind of brain for science’ | Books