Judy's Reviews > The Mind-Body Problem

The Mind-Body Problem by Rebecca Goldstein
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May 25, 2010

really liked it
bookshelves: 20th-century-fiction
Recommended for: philosophical fiction fans
Read in April, 2010


I was so impressed by Rebecca Goldstein's recent 36 Arugments for the Existence of God, which I reviewed for BookBrowse, that I wanted to read her earlier novels. (She has five of them.) The Mind-Body Problem is her first and I found it great.

Goldstein has a PhD in philosophy and is a professor of the subject. In this novel, as in her latest, she uses a story to demonstrate various philosophical views, which might not please a majority of readers but makes me very happy. I tried to take philosophy in college but gave up, finding the texts assigned incomprehensible. Forty years later, due to hard work on building my vocabulary, reading Will Durant's The Story of Philosophy and just living life, I am finally getting a clue about this huge subject.

I am not sure a person could get much out of philosophy at age 20 and indeed Renee, the heroine of this novel, finds that to be so. She has been both brainy and beautiful in her young years but arrives at Princeton University in the 1980s for graduate work in philosophy and falls on her face. Her solution? She marries a math genius twenty-eight years her senior.

That also goes badly but at least provides her with a real life laboratory in which to work out her issues and her thesis: the mind-body problem. She is actually a fairly troubled young woman, due to her Jewish upbringing and her need for recognition and praise in order to feel like she matters. Luckily she is young and the sexual playing field is quite free and loose, being after the sexual revolution and before AIDS.

Having grown up in Princeton, in awe of the university scene while I was in high school, having visited The Advanced Institute as a child, meeting Robert Oppenheimer and hearing tales about Albert Einstein, it was pure pleasure to be in that locale while reading the book. Goldstein describes it all so well, including the faculty parties, wives and rivalries. I also love stories about geniuses and the challenges of living with them.

Somehow, even though Renee is hopelessly self-centered and stupidly reckless in many ways, I never disliked her as a character. I trusted that she would figure it out because she was so smart and actually did know her philosophy, if only intellectually. Living with a genius is tough as well as humorous. Renee suffers, grows up, and in a surprising climax, acquits herself well.
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