From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. A mathematician, friend of Albert Einstein, and father of two employed an illiterate, numbers-savvy maid to take care of his affluent Washington, D.C., home, and an improbable friendship ensued. In this thoroughly engaging memoir, Newman, the daughter of James Newman, author of 1956's The World of Mathematics
, wonderfully recreates the early Civil Rights era when the miraculous Jenniemae Harrington came into the family's lives and rendered their emotionally reticent, offbeat household more warmly human. Jenniemae was a large African-American woman from rural Alabama who lived with her sister in the Washington ghetto when she first came to work for the Newmans in 1948. She spouted folksy wisdom (e.g., Only a fool will argue against the sun) and gambled (with phenomenal success) on numbers that had occurred to her in her dreams. As James worked in his home office during the day, he learned of Jenniemae's daily numbers betting, although she refused to admit it was gambling (It's the Lord's gift, was how she explained it). Over the years, their endearingly antagonistic friendship deepened, and they managed to see the other through numerous crises (including Jenniemae's rape by a bus driver and James's marital and girlfriend grief). The author, as a keen observer growing up in this fraught household, absorbed the emotional ramifications of Jenniemae's presence, and fashions dialogue that is pitch-perfect. (Mar.)
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Growing up, Newman witnessed how an amazing affinity for numbers formed the basis of an enduring and unlikely friendship between her father, a brilliant and erratic white mathematician, and Jenniemae, the illiterate black housekeeper who held their fragile family together through the 1940s and 1950s. This is not one of those noble stories of how a poor black woman rescues a dysfunctional white family, though there is plenty of dysfunctionality. James and Jenniemae respect one another’s abilities and rely on one another through life’s vicissitudes. James’ chronic womanizing threatens the family, while his egomania and his work with Albert Einstein and others to urge peaceful use of atomic energy during the 1950s threaten his career. His wife, Ruth, plagued with borderline schizophrenia and a tortured acceptance of her husband’s philandering, adds to a household where the children “saw too much and understood too little.” Newman is unsparing yet loving in this complex portrait of her father, author of the classic The World of Mathematics, and the woman essential to her childhood. --Vanessa Bush