A Bend in the Stars: A Novel

  • Review
By – March 2, 2020

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.

Shi­ra R. Lon­don is the librar­i­an at Beth Tfiloh Dahan Com­mu­ni­ty High School in Bal­ti­more, MD. She holds an M.L.S. from Colum­bia University.

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