"Emily and Einstein"is a novel that dances between genres: women's fiction, magical realism, romance, dog lovers' fiction (surely its own genre by now). The novel doesn't fit into any neat package, and Linda Francis Lee employs these incongruities, including a paranormal flourish, to deepen her story's emotional punch.
The titular Emily is a book editor, happily married to her husband, Sandy -- until he dies, and she finds out that he was a serial cheater whose family immediately starts eviction proceedings against her. She's furious, heartbroken and humiliated. In time, she realizes that Sandy was a charming, self-destructive man with big ambitions and no follow-through. He wanted to run the New York marathon; he never managed. He wanted to be a rower, a basketball player, an honorable husband. He failed, and failed again. Being rich and beautiful has a way of shielding a man from his own failures. As Emily finally understands, her husband "was a man used to getting his way without having to bargain or even ask."
But "Emily and Einstein" is not a simple novel about marital betrayal. Emily was stubbornly blind to the reality of her marriage: as she says, she "was never good at sensing trouble." Sandy lied to her from the very beginning, yet she forgave him. She deliberately didn't see her marriage, her husband, her life: She loved a man who didn't exist. She created a phantom husband, a paranormal partner.
And here's where the fascinating magic aspect of the novel comes in: Lee gives Emily's scruffy little rescue dog the soul of a man -- to be, exactly, "Sandy's" soul. Wasn't it Pythagoras who believed that a good friend was reincarnated as a dog? It sounds complicated and weird, but Lee presents animal re-embodiment as a one-time occurrence (no need to eye your dog for resemblances to your dislikable, dead ex).
Sandy-as-Einstein is a scruffy, sarcastic and funny dog who finds it hard to come to terms with the fact he was a rabid little mutt as a human. And Emily has her own learning to do; she needs to understand that she is an expert at avoiding truths that stare her right in the face. Any of us who have avoided a powerful, painful truth know the utter conviction of denial. But this plot really hinges on one question: Can Emily recognize Sandy-as-Einstein -- a truly impossible truth? Lee turns what could be a simple redemptive tale, in which Emily gets over her faithless former husband and meets a lovely guy named Max, into a real challenge: Can Emily accept a truth that her common sense tells her cannot be true?
I loved the use "Emily and Einstein" makes of its fantastic premise: the way that a touch of magic and humor makes deep sorrow and painful secrets more visible. With a nod to Pythagoras, Lee will have you believing in miracles and second chances -- and you might even find yourself eyeing the family pet in a new light.