This book is a novelized account of the life of
Sofia Kovalevskaya (aka Sonia Kovalevskey and infinitely^{1} many alternative
spellings), famous today as the first woman to receive a Ph.D. in
mathematics. The book focuses only on the period from her youth until she
received the degree, and pays the greatest attention to the fascinating social aspects
of this true story. In particular, it focuses on the social
obstacles that could prevent a woman from being able to receive an
education, and Sofia's "false marriage" to a man who could arrange for her
to receive it. In addition to the interesting emotional drama surrounding
her marriage, we encounter a little bit of mathematics and a few famous
historical mathematicians who are impressed with Kovalevkaya's mathematical
abilities.
The book seems to be well researched. (I do not know enough about this
period in Russian history or the life of Kovalevskaya to know for certain,
but the author claims to know Russian and to have translated some of
Kovaleveskaya's personal documents, so I'll just assume that this is
accurate. Its authenticity seems to be confirmed by the very positive review of the book written by Ann Hibner Koblitz, who is most certainly an expert! ) Spicci relies heavily on dialogue in
writing this book, as if it were a play, and rarely describes scenery or
provides significant information through narration.
Forgive me for including this, but I am often bothered by the
misuse of the term "mathematician" and just want to use this opportunity to
correct it. In the "about the author" appendix, Spicci describes herself
as a mathematician. I'm afraid that her training as a mathematics teacher does not
make her a mathematician (at least as I use the word).
Mathematicians are the people who do mathematics, and not everyone
who learns or teaches mathematics is a mathematician. Note, as an analogy,
that being an English teacher does not make one an author.
(She lists her membership in the Association for Women in Mathematics as
evidence that she is a mathematician, but I could join that organization
and it would not make me a woman.)
It is for this very reason that
I think it is important to point out that Kovalevskaya is famous not only
because she was a woman, but also because of her research which is
significant in its own right. Kovalevskaya was not only a math student, but
also a mathematician.
One can still read today about "Kovalevsky's Top" which provided some initial
foundational research into the modern theory of integrable systems.
Also see the film Hill on the Dark Side of the Moon,
also about Kovalevskaya.
It may be relevant to some readers that Spicci is married to Fred
Saberhagen of sciencefiction fame, though this book should certainly
cement her independent reputation as an author. Contributed by
Kathryn Pedings
I thought that Spicci did a wonderful job of portraying Sofya Kovalevskaya's life in an interesting and entertaining way. The dialogue throughout seemed very fitting for the time period and the situations that Sofya encountered. I only gave the math content a rating of 2 because there was very little math seen throughout. Being a work of mathematical fiction, I wish that more attention would have been payed to the content of her research and the specific subject areas she was working in. I would have really loved to hear more about the spinning top that Kovalevskaya is so famous for. Spicci calls it her "mermaid," but little more information is given to us about it. I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys historical fiction, and any woman who may be considering entering a career in mathematics as it will help you to appreciate the trials that were overcome for this priviledge of an education.

^{1}
Algebraic geometer Frans Oort has registered a complaint regarding my use of the concept of "infinity" here. He writes "I feel that a mathematician should use the words `infinitely many'
if you really mean what you write. (Many nonmathematicians abuse,
but they do not know better.)" I apologize if this looked like a thoughtless use of "infinitely" as if it were a synonym for "a great many". It was intended to be a joke.
