Rachel Barenbaum’s absorbing debut novel A Bend in the Stars has something for every reader. A work of historical fiction that explores the tangled relationships between the various protagonists, it also touches upon the difficulties women physicians in Russia faced as pioneers in their field; the harsh reality of daily life for Jews in Russia before World War I; and the difficulty in proving Einstein’s Theory of Relativity.
Miri Abramov, a newly-trained surgeon at a time when women were viewed as less capable than their male counterparts, is engaged to marry her mentor, Yuri, but her family is suddenly forced to flee because of the Czar’s order to conscript all Jewish men in the town. To complicate matters, a powerful Russian administrator at the university where Miri’s brother Vanya works is attempting to undermine him. The author places the fictional Vanya in the race to prove Einstein’s Theory of Relativity; in actuality, Einstein did make use of the work of several mathematical and scientific thinkers, such as Henri Poincaré, in his final proof. Since Vanya has been promised that if his equations prove Einstein’s theory he and his family will be allowed to emigrate to America, he is doubly determined to escape.
Miri joins up with a wounded soldier named Sasha whose life she has saved and slips away in one direction, while Vanya and Yuri head off in another. The story then switches back and forth between the harrowing experiences of both groups of travelers.
The author skillfully moves the plot along, focusing on the narrative tension of the dangers the characters face. She builds multi-layered backstories for each of her three main characters, so that the reader understands their actions and motivations. However, the book exerts its most powerful emotional pull in its examination of Miri’s struggle to understand her feelings for both Yuri and Sasha. The fact that a new novelist like Barenbaum has crafted a plot with plenty of drama, while also weaving a complex web of relationships, is the mark of a gifted novelist indeed.