The Book about Blanche and Marie

Written by Per Olov Enquist (trans. Tiina Nunnally)
Review by Teresa Basinski Eckford

Set in Paris during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, this quiet novel is a work of art. With every word, every phrase, the author draws you deeper and deeper into the world of Blanche Wittman and Marie Sklodowska Curie.

Blanche was a young woman who first spent more than a decade in the Salpêtrière Hospital, where she served as a public model for Professor J.M. Charcot’s demonstrations of techniques to cure women of hysteria by hypnosis. After the professor’s death, she became Marie’s assistant in her lab, and fell victim to the radiation, resulting in multiple amputations.

The novel centres on notebooks belonging to Blanche, in which she explores the nature of love through her own and Marie’s experiences. But there is so much more. The author himself appears to be narrating much of the story, so we learn about his own life as well. He circles back to certain themes and incidents, slowly building to the resolution of a question raised in the mind of the reader early on. We meet a cast of interesting characters and become part of their world.

The story starts slowly enough, with the death of Blanche, then flashes back, with the aid of the notebooks, to tell how she came to live in an apartment with Madame Curie. From there the reader journeys through the hearts and souls of these women, neither of whom was lucky in love for more than a short time. Despite the pervading sadness, the narrative seduces the reader and celebrates the lives of two very unique women and their friendship.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough.