Sunday 18 August 2019

Lost and Wanted: A tale of physics, feminism and the afterlife

Fiction: Lost and Wanted

Nell Freudenberger

Penguin, €16.99

Lost and Wanted
Lost and Wanted

Margaret Madden

Professor Helen Clapp has zero tolerance for the unexplainable. She is a world-renowned physicist, who used a carefully vetted sperm donor to conceive her son and balances her single-parenting/career-life to perfection.

A fan of certainty and confident in her future, she is shocked to learn that her best friend has died. The grief is blended with a questioning of proven theories when she receives a text from her deceased friend. How is this possible? Quantum physics research is ever evolving and, despite her linear thinking, she finds herself viewing life (and death) as more fluid than she previously considered.

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Meeting as undergrads, they were opposites: Helen, from a working-class white family, bound for the world of science; Charlie from a wealthy black background, immersed in the arts. The two remain in sporadic contact until Charlie's death. Helen reflects on their different paths and how Charlie's experiences in life were almost always related to the colour of her skin, as well as (the rarely discussed, pre- #MeToo) sexual discrimination.

Helen has always taken a pragmatic approach to the gender imbalance in academia: "I think there's a part of me that likes being in the minority - a particle physicist at Princeton in the 1990s, a woman in this field at all. This is simply a personal preference, in the same way that I prefer running or swimming to team sports, and has no bearing on my genuine desire for more equity in the discipline."

Charlie's attempts to be accepted in the world of acting were not as straightforward: "Casting directors are usually women - white women… if it doesn't say black, that's not what they're looking for. They'll be like, 'Oh, it's not an ethnic role. And I'm like 'ethnic'?"

Freudenberger has her finger on the pulse of the feminist literary scene and has written an acutely observant account of female life, its expectations and realities. A little heavy-handed with the physics research, but these sections can be skimmed to allow immersion in the story of gender and racial inequality.

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