Wow, this book was an absolute joy to read. When you think of Stephen Hawking, you immediately think of how brilliant his mind is, and how strong he must be to have coped with Motor Neuron Disease for so long. What you don’t immediately think about is his first wife Jane, who was with him through the diagnosis and all the trials and tribulations of the next 25 years.
Stephen may have been strong, but Jane was something else. The book charts her struggles to care for Stephen alongside the pressures of bringing up three young children in a world that doesn’t seem to care much to provide assistance for Stephen’s condition.
She writes that her story “would be quite ordinary, quite common to most people’s lives, were it not for two factors: motor-neuron disease and genius”. While the strain put on their relationship by Stephen’s progressive decline due to the debilitating nature of MND is center stage, without this the book also contains many of the same stresses that any young family would encounter.
The story of Hawking leaving his first wife to live with one of his nurses is quite well known, but never told before from this angle, and rather than shy away from the strains and stresses on their marriage, Jane writes with a frank honest which was most surprising. It’s easy to believe all the salacious claims made in newspapers, and Jane also had to cope with hearing this claims from people who were supposed to be her family (by marriage at least). I can’t imagine how hard it would have been to be accused of such things when you’ve dedicated 25 years of your life to single-handedly caring for someone who is almost entirely dependent on your help.
And quite aside from Stephen’s physical disabilities, the world wasn’t content to give Jane a break. From coming down with a horrible case of shingles, to seeing her children hospitalised and having to juggle their care with that of her husband, she shows a strength that most of us could only wish for.
I’m so so glad that I decided to read this book after going to see the Theory of Everything. Although it was a brilliant film (and Eddie Redmayne deserves every award going for his superb acting), I knew that Hollywood has a tendency to simplify situations and glamorise people, and I wanted to get more of a full story than they could ever give.
A lot of reviews on Goodreads seem quite negative, and seem to suggest that this book is mainly Jane complaining about how hard her life was. But I don’t see the complaining, I see an honest account of what must have been a very difficult time, and if these reviewers can’t take the fact that Jane didn’t sugar coat the truth and leave Stephen on a pedestal for all to admire, then they’re not really taking from the book what I assume was intended.
To me, Jane was trying to show that living and caring for someone with a debilitating and life-consuming disease is hard, even if you have a huge support network of family and friends around you. Charities like the Motor Neuron Disease Association (supported by both Jane and Stephen) are invaluable help for people suffering through these situations, but Jane shows the struggles that are behind the scenes and that silently affect thousands of people across the UK living in similar situations.
If you enjoyed the film, I would whole-heartedly recommend this book. Just don’t expect it to be all sunshine and roses, you’re going to be put through an emotional wringer.