Margaret's Reviews > Charles and Emma: The Darwins' Leap of Faith

Charles and Emma by Deborah Heiligman
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Sep 01, 10

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Read in September, 2010

This biography of Charles Darwin begins with him putting together a list - on one side of the page are reasons to get married, on the other reasons not to. “better than a dog anyhow” vs. “less money for books.”

One of the big reasons not to is his growing sense of disbelief in God and religion. Darwin makes his choice, beginning a 43-year partnership with his cousin Emma Wedgwood, but her steadfast belief in God is the one issue that comes between them.

Heiligman tries to use the religious debate as a frame for the biography. I don't think she succeeded as well wit that - there's not as much conflict there as she seems to think there is. But it's a well-told, albeit somewhat slowly-paced, story. Heiligman does a good job of explaining the complex issues of natural selection and evolution in simple language, as well as the controversy surrounding the issue that continues to this day. Historical figures all to often come across as stuffy, but the Darwin in this book is an amusing real person - an absent-minded professor and beloved father and husband.

What to read next: The book has a wide-ranging bibliography at the end, ranging from Darwin's own works, which might be a bit rough for a high-school student, to Austen's Emma, which would appeal to a student who enjoys the gentle Victorian romance presented here. Dickens would also work for those students. On the science side "The Beak of the Finch" by Heiligman's husband Jonathon Weiner, would be an excellent choice. There's obviously a wealth of adult books on this topic; I might also suggest one of Simon Winchester's books - different topics, but the tone is similar and the way of presenting a scientific topic in a sort of novel format might engage a reader.
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