The Girl Pretending to Read Rilke, by Barbara Riddle, is in many ways a classic coming-of-age story. I highly recommend it to anyone who is looking to add to their “must read” lists. The writer Barbara Ehrenreich called it “sharply funny.” A perfect novel to tuck into your getaway bag.
After watching President Obama award the Presidential Medal Of Freedom to the chemistry researcher and physicist Mildred Dresselhaus back on November 24th, 2014, I chose to reread Barbara Riddle’s novel The Girl Pretending to Read Rilke, (originally published in 2000, and reprinted in 2013 by Pilgrim’s Lane Press.)
The novel is the story of Bronwen, a young woman in the throes of learning whether she has what it takes to become a full-fledged research scientist, set in the framework of one eventful summer in the year 1963. Bronwen has an internship in a genetics research laboratory at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts during the summer between her junior and her senior years of college- just months before the assassination JFK. What happens during this summer will determine whether she can go to graduate school and follow her dream of becoming a geneticist. Such a career was not common for women at that point in time.
The author recently told me during an extended conversation about the novel that she chose the year 1963 because it seemed pivotal in the life of her character and in the cultural history of the United States. The novel is based on her personal experiences, with some elements heightened or time frames changed to give dramatic structure. Riddle, who earned a PhD in biochemistry, is now a full-time writer. She is excited by the existence of a new genre called “fiction about science” that did not really exist when she was writing. Now her novel is listed on various websites devoted to understanding how the thought processes and ethics of scientists impacts the literature they write. She feels this is crucial to helping bridge the communication gap between scientists and nonscientists- which is necessary for the survival of our planet! Laughing, she says that before she wrote The Girl Pretending to Read Rilke, she felt she had to choose between her love of poetry and language, and her love of science; afterwards, she realized that poets and scientists alike are searching for meaningful ways to connect with reality and that no one path excludes another.
I was not yet born back in the 1960’s, so as I read through this book, I was not relating to Riddle’s descriptions of the era from any personal memories. I have, however, seen enough news footage of the first half of the 1960’s, and I’ve read reprints of enough newspaper and magazine articles from that era to recognize that her depiction of the era seems quite accurate. The author’s descriptions of the events of the era, the music, the politics, the culture, the technologies as well as accepted attitudes about women in society really do give a very vivid impression of what it was like to be alive at that time of turmoil in American life.
Most importantly, Riddle invites us into Bronwen’s life and into the inner workings of her thought processes and her mindset. We become intimately familiar with the issues Bronwen is struggling with, including a terrible family tragedy that threatens to derail all her plans and dreams. She manages to keep working steadily, surrounded by a world whose culture and technologies were beginning to change in quite a few ways. To keep people from inquiring too closely into her problems, she “pretends to read Rilke,” when she eats lunch alone, hoping the obscure German poet will scare people away. In truth, she loves Rilke and is sustained by his lyrical grasp of the world. I will say that Riddle has done a beautiful job here interweaving elements from the culture, the music, the clothing, the political events and the technologies of the era with Bronwen’s story.
Throughout the course of this book, our protagonist Bronwen is reading (or trying to read!) either The Collected Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke or The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (Rilke’s only novel), in her spare moments, embodying Riddle’s theme of a young woman confused by her present life and seeking answers. Science and its rules seem like a solution, and at the same time she is learning how to accept the ambiguity and solace of an individualistic, poetic way of understanding the world. That she is a young woman facing these issues only adds to the uniqueness of Riddle’s novel, since there is already a longstanding tradition of young men as protagonists of Bildungsroman, or coming-of-age stories.
“How life occurs… How it ramifies and spreads, how life blossoms, how it bears, all that I long to learn
In some ways, the story in The Girl Pretending to Read Rilke has actually never been more relevant than it is today in the second decade of the twenty first century.
There have been a handful of women scientists dating as far back as the 18th century. However, there were notably few female scientists throughout the 19th century and throughout much of the first half of the 20th century, and of the few female scientists who were working on very innovative research during these periods, many of them only received recognition for their research and for their contributions to science posthumously.
In fact, it is only relatively recently that we’re starting to see an increasing number of articles published in various publications in a number of countries throughout the world which are now pointing out just how many of the female scientists from the 19th century and the early decades of the 20th century were actually forgotten by science and history textbooks. It actually was during the 1960’s when larger numbers of women first began to apply for work in science-related jobs, and Riddle’s book accurately illustrates some of the attitudes that were pervasive throughout the sciences at the time.
Today, in the second decade of the twenty first century, women comprise almost an equal percentage of jobs in the sciences, at least in the U.S. However, dismantling the glass ceiling is a painfully lengthy process; there are still notable discrepancies in salaries as well as in benefits. People who pay attention to the issues relating to salary discrepancies in STEM jobs as well as the issues relating to benefits will find this book interesting; half a century ago, women were first dismantling the glass ceiling in STEM jobs here, and when you read Riddle’s novel, you can see how the women who were working in STEM jobs during the 1960’s began to pave the way for today’s women scientists.
There are also still discrepancies in how long it takes for female scientist to receive recognition for their work here in the U.S., continuing right into the second decade of the 21st century. In November of 2014, when President Obama awarded the Presidential Medal Of Freedom to Mildred Dresselhaus, many of us wondered why she was not awarded this honor several years earlier when she’d been working with the Federal government’s Department Of Energy’s Office Of Science or when she’d been working with the American Institute Of Physics.
Across to the other side of the Atlantic, in the U.K.’s body which administers and oversees scientific standards, the Royal Institution Of Great Britain has still not had a female President, and they’ve had only one (1) female director, Baroness Susan Adele Greenfield, until the position of director was made redundant in 2010.
The Order Is Rapidly Fadin’
As I mentioned, since the 1970’s, more and more women have been working in STEM jobs, and today, women actually do comprise a significant number of the workforce in STEM jobs in the U.S. However, in other regions of the world, women are just now beginning to shatter the glass ceiling. In a number of countries in North Africa, sub- Saharan Africa, the Persian Gulf, the Middle East as well as throughout parts of Asia, women are just now beginning to apply in significant numbers for STEM jobs and for research positions in laboratories.
The culture in those countries is changing, the politics in those countries is changing, and the job opportunities that are now available reflect the beginning of the end of prejudices which have been pervasive for centuries. In some ways, what women who are applying for STEM jobs in those countries today are experiencing is not astoundingly dissimilar to what women who were applying for STEM jobs in the U.S. during the first half of the 1960’s were facing. The first prominent female scientists ever in some of those countries will likely be receiving publicity in the media throughout the world soon, and they are working in research laboratories in those countries right now.
Enormous progress has been made since the 1960’s. For example, today, we have The Camille And Henry Dreyfus Foundation’s annual ACS Award For Encouraging Women Into Careers In The Chemical Sciences. This ACS Award was founded in 1993, and it is not likely that there would have been enough interest throughout the U.S. to establish and fund such an award in earlier decades. Overseas, we’re seeing similar trends in recent years too.
For example, in the youth programs which are aimed at high school and junior high school students who are interested in science, such as the annual Pan African Robotics Competition, which was established in 2015, we’re actually seeing close to equal numbers of male and female students signing up to participate.
However, as I mentioned earlier, there are still significant pieces of the glass ceiling which have yet to be dismantled. A recent article in the May 25th, 2016 issue of Scientific American illustrated that women are still being paid less than their male counterparts for comparable work in most STEM jobs. Women still face notably less job security with STEM jobs, both here in the U.S. as well as in many other countries throughout the world today. We’re also seeing a number of articles in recent years reporting on no shortage of incidents in which women who are working in science laboratories sometimes find that they are not being taken seriously when they report incidents of harassment in the workplace.
And so, between the eras of the first half of the 20th century when there were only a handful of women in any fields of science throughout the world, and today’s world where women are finally comprising close to half of the workforce in STEM jobs, was the transitional era back in the 1960’s when larger numbers of women were first entering into STEM jobs. The Girl Pretending to Read Rilke is one of the few novels which actually captures the experience of what it was like to be a woman working in a biology research laboratory in the 1960’s; even for those of us who were not yet born back in the 1960’s, we get a very real impression of what it was like to be working in a facility which was working on some of the most advanced research in the world at the time, in an era when women were first beginning to apply for STEM jobs.
The Girl Pretending to Read Rilke will appeal to readers who enjoy coming-of-age stories, to people who enjoy stories which are set during the 1960’s, and will also appeal to anyone who is interested in reading about the history of women in science. It’s a fast, funny, but ultimately very serious novel about how to pursue your dreams and overcome personal and societal obstacles to follow your own path. That’s something we can all relate to.