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Book Review - Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen by Jane Hawking

Updated on March 11, 2015

Why I Chose to Read Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen

I can tell you it wasn’t because of the mathematics, physics, or cosmology. Just the mere thought of anything with numbers or science is enough to send me into a brown paper bag breathing session.

That is only half a joke.

I have the Oscars to thank for this choice in book. With Eddie Redmayne up for Best Actor in The Theory of Everything, the movie adaption of Jane Hawking’s memoir, I got curious. I find other people fascinating and love learning about their lives, what sort of things they’ve gone through, how they dealt with and overcame obstacles in their lives. And honestly, what could be more intriguing that learning more about the man who’s lived far longer than anyone ever expected given that the life expectancy for ALS sufferers is three to five years once the symptoms begin. Stephen Hawking has lived with the disease for over fifty years.

**The e-book version I read was released in 2007. The movie tie-in edition, released November 7, 2014, may have additional information.

Eddie Redmayne on Playing Stephen Hawking - Ellen Show

Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen isn’t just about Stephen Hawking. Obviously. I hadn’t even known he’d been married, but it was intriguing to me, a marriage under the circumstances of Stephen’s illness. I’m a bit of a voyeur and I wanted to know what it was like for his illness to be such a large part of their lives. I hadn’t realized how large a part it played until I discovered that they’d gotten married shortly after Stephen’s diagnosis. Jane Hawking went into this marriage knowing full well Stephen’s illness was terminal.

How ballsy and selfless is that? Have to give credit where credit is due. I’m not sure many people would undertake such an endeavor. I’m not sure I would. Or could.

By NASA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
By NASA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons | Source

The Review

Stephen Hawking is both a theoretical physicist and cosmologist. For the uninitiated (like your humble reviewer) a theoretical physicist uses mathematics to explain naturally-occurring phenomena and a cosmologist studies how the universe was created, how it evolved, and how it might end. There are probably more involved and better explained definitions of each, but for the sake of not getting bogged down, simplistic is probably better. Most people will know Stephen Hawking as the man in the wheelchair who uses a computer-generated voice to communicate, even if they know nothing else about him.

As the title suggests, Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen by Jane Hawking is a memoir, and it does, indeed, offer a rare glimpse into the time Jane spent married to Stephen. Told from Jane’s point of view, it offers a rare glimpse into the life of a man who’s beat the odds living with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and the toll his illness takes not only on him, but on everyone around him, especially Jane who handles his physical needs as his abilities decline on top of raising their children and traveling with him across the globe to attend conferences and schools and other meetings designed to further Stephen’s career.

TED Talks - Stephen Hawking: Questioning the Universe

The memoir bits are sometimes difficult to follow thanks to the seemingly extraneous information Ms. Hawking includes—information about physics and music and old composers and long-dead poets and other luminaries in various fields. Certainly these things played a large role in both her life and Stephen’s given their respective intellectual pursuits, but the vast majority of the time it’s unclear as to why she includes this information, especially to the extent she does. There is little effort made to tie the various intellectual threads into their daily lives or how they tie into the overall point she’s trying to make.

BBC 4 Radio Interview with Jane Hawking

Making these tangents all the more problematic is Ms. Hawking’s writing style, which comes across far more formal than informal. She’s very matter of fact and doesn’t hold back on her opinions and thoughts, but the presentation feels emotionally-lacking. It’s doubtful anyone would blame her for maintaining an emotional disconnect given the stress she must have been under, but readers may find it difficult to form an emotional attachment to the “characters” and the trials they go through. From fighting the National Health Service for the care Stephen needed (and still needs), having to make their own arrangements for his care, the effect being the primary caregiver while raising a family had on her, to battling his parents and siblings along the way, this is heavy-duty emotional “stuff” and the emotional impact must have been overwhelming. Yet the emotionless writing style lends itself to the impression that Ms. Hawking constantly plays the victim/martyr and Mr. Hawking is the perpetual jerk who believes his own hype. Because the memoir is from Ms. Hawking’s perspective, that’s to be expected to some extent, but it’s troubling she doesn’t delve too closely into her own shortcomings. Jane’s all come across as being solely due to her own feelings of inadequacy brought to the surface by those around her rather than even the slightest bit of her own accord. In short, it doesn’t seem like she takes any personal responsibility for herself, her own actions, and her own choices.

Stephen Hawking ALS Ice Bucket Challenge

Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen is an “abridged version of the original memoir”—the original memoir being Music to Move the Stars. Ms. Hawking includes a “Postlude” dated February 2007 that fills in the gaps between the time Music to Move the Stars (1999) and Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen were released. She speaks to what her, and Stephen’s, children are doing, how Stephen’s life is intertwined with theirs, and what happened to some of the other major players in their lives.

Overall, Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen does tell of Jane’s and Stephens lives together, how they met, what transpired during their marriage as Stephen’s health took a dramatic nosedive, and Ms. Hawking unabashedly relates the trials and tribulations they endured, but the emotional connection typically expected from a memoir isn’t there. That being said, their story is interesting and well worth reading, but there are tangential threads that aren’t tied into their story as well as they could have been.

The Verdict Explained

Positives

  • An interesting glimpse into the lives of Jane Hawking and her ex-husband Stephen
  • Unabashed look at living with ALS, for both the sufferer and the caregiver

Negatives

  • Lack of emotional connection for the reader
  • Tangential threads that aren't as connected to the story as they could be


The Verdict

3 stars for Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen

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    • jlpark profile image

      Jacqui 2 years ago from New Zealand

      Thanks for your review on this book. I've recently watched the Theory of Everything, and was thinking about reading it. I may still do so, but with warning of the lack of emotional connection from Jane to her reader - I will be better prepared.

      Thanks for sharing this.

    • kjpiercetrc profile image
      Author

      K.J. Pierce 2 years ago from Central Florida

      Hi jlpark - you're very welcome - and thanks to you for leaving a comment. I haven't yet seen the movie, so you're one step ahead of me there. :-) If you decide to read it, I'd love to hear what you think.

    • CorneliaMladenova profile image

      Korneliya Yonkova 2 years ago from Cork, Ireland

      Great review, I am going to search for this book today. Looks really intriguing :) Voted high :)

    • kjpiercetrc profile image
      Author

      K.J. Pierce 2 years ago from Central Florida

      Thanks Cornelia. Hope you enjoy it!

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