Sonderbooks Book Reviews by Sondra Eklund

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*****= An all-time favorite
****  = Outstanding
***    = Above average
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*        = Good, with reservations


*****Beyond the Limit

The Dream of Sofya Kovalevskaya

by Joan Spicci

Reviewed September 1, 2003.
Forge Books (Tom Doherty Associates), New York, 2002.  491 pages.
Available at Sembach Library (F SPI).
A Sonderbooks’ Stand-out of 2003:  My Favorite Adult Book of the Year

All at once, this book is a fascinating historical novel, a captivating love story, and an inspiring story of someone triumphing against all odds.

Sofya Kovalevskaya was the first woman to earn a doctorate in mathematics.  Her story is a fascinating one, played out against the backdrop of important historical events in Europe.  This is a novel, but based on the facts of her life.

The book opens with the teenaged Sofya having a crush on Dostoevsky, the famous writer, who is courting her older sister.  Sofya has a great interest in science and mathematics, and her sister Anyuta wants to be a writer, but universities in Russia did not allow women admittance.  As long as they are unmarried, their passport is under the control of their father, and he will not allow them to travel to another country to study.

Anyuta and some friends decide on a scheme to give them freedom.  They will find a man who is willing to marry one of them in a fictitious marriage.  Then he will allow his wife to travel to another country to study, and she will serve as chaperone for the other women, thus persuading their fathers to allow them to travel.

They do find a man, Vladimir Kovalevsky, who is disenchanted with romance and is willing to go through with a fake marriage, even though if it is discovered it would be considered sacrilege and would be punished with imprisonment or even death.  There’s one catch to their plans.  He doesn’t want to marry Anyuta, but eighteen-year-old Sofya, since he believes that science is the road to the liberation of the people.

They get married, and travel to Vienna.  Sofya isn’t happy with the mathematics professors there, so they go to Heidelberg (where they visit the castle, as I have done so many times).  At Heidelberg, she must struggle even to be able to attend classes.

Meanwhile, the author exquisitely portrays Vladimir and Sofya falling in love with each other.  However, even once they realize that they love each other, they still don’t dare live as husband and wife, since having a child would definitely put an end to Sofya’s hopes of studying for her doctorate.  Naturally, this doesn’t help their marriage to grow.

Besides conflict with university authorities and conflict in her marriage, Sofya’s sister gets involved with a man in the besieged Paris commune.  Sofya goes to help her and adds war to her story.

Don’t let the plain cover fool you—This is a dramatic and suspenseful story, another one I couldn’t stand to stop reading even to sleep.  Of course, it was extra easy for me to identify with Sofya, since I was once in a doctoral program in Mathematics myself.  Although the proportion of women in such programs is still minute, in comparison with Sofya Kovalevskaya, women today face comparatively no obstacles at all except the difficulty of the work.  I don’t think that you would have to be interested in mathematics to love this book.  I hope that some of you will read it and let me know if I’m right!

When I looked up the book on Amazon, I noticed that every single customer review had given it five stars.  So I’m not the only one who liked it!

Copyright © 2005 Sondra Eklund.  All rights reserved.

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