Written through the eyes of a loving daughter, Eve Curie’s biography of her mother portrays a woman completely dedicated to her profession. Unlike the bittersweet portrayals frequently offered by the offspring of celebrities, that of Madame Curie is essentially a love story.
As stated in the introduction, the author’s mother was thirty-seven years old when Eve was born. Eve Curie was two when her father was killed, and by the time that she was old enough to know her mother well, Madame Curie had already passed middle age. The daughter was never really to know much of her mother’s life. Much of the book becomes a resurrection of past events, based in part on intimate details provided by Madame Curie and in part on letters that survived the passage of years. The rest, including dialogue, is the story as it may have unfolded.
Madame Curie, as an individual, remains an inspiration to anyone striving against the odds. She was first and foremost a Polish nationalist. France was her adopted country, but Poland remained her home. Fortunately, Curie lived to see her native land again become independent, following the war in 1918. She is valiantly portrayed in the battle for equal rights for both sexes. Despite the reluctance of the male-dominated faculty of the Sorbonne, she would eventually become the head of her own laboratory. Ironically, she was never admitted to the French Académie des Sciences. She missed by two votes in 1911, and no vote was ever again attempted.
Curie’s life is portrayed in two parts. As a scientist, she matured under the tutelage of Pierre Curie. Eight years older than she, Pierre brought stability, companionship, and love to a struggling student who had known only sacrifice and poverty. Without Pierre’s guidance, Marie would undoubtedly have been a success some-where in the field of physics. With Pierre by her side, however, she discovered radium (as part of her doctoral thesis) and became world famous. The author, through letters saved by her mother or other members of the family, clearly illustrates how the two personalities complemented each other so perfectly. Readers could ask for little more in a conventional love story.
Nevertheless, Madame Curie is much more than that. After all, Marie and Pierre Curie were married only eleven years. The years after Pierre’s death were filled both with pathos and acclaim. The role of colleague and confidante would eventually fall to Irène, their eldest daughter. Following in her parents’ footsteps, Irène Curie would enter the same field of research, marry an equally brilliant scientist, Frédéric Joliot, and would herself be awarded a Nobel Prize in Chemistry for 1935. (As a final irony, Irène Joliot-Curie would die from the effects of radiation resulting from her research, as did Madame Curie.)
As Eve Curie clearly demonstrates, the success, awards, and titles acquired by her mother never changed her soft-spoken personality. The reader comes away with the feeling that, had she been permitted simply to continue with her work as a comparative unknown in the field, Madame Curie would have been equally happy. An anecdote reported in the book illustrates this point. With the outbreak of the war in 1914, France was in need of gold. Curie attempted to donate her scientific medals as a measure of support. They were refused; however, she did donate the money received from her Nobel award of 1911.
Finally, the author describes her own part in the story. Madame Curie spent many of her final years living and traveling with her daughter Eve. The author humorously describes how, during particularly tiring periods on a tour of the United States, both she and her sister Irène would literally fill their mother’s shoes, portraying Madame Curie before adoring crowds and pretentious society matrons. In the end, however, it seems as if Eve was resentful of the way in which Madame Curie’s career separated her from the family. The author remained the only member of the family who did not choose science as a vocation.