Loving Richard Feynman, by Penny Tangey

Dear Professor Feynman,
Last week Dad bought me a poster of you for my birthday. I hung it up on my wall, perpendicularly adjacent to my desk. It is one of the best presents I have ever received. A month ago, I had never even heard of you, which is embarrassing now I know how important you are. It was my dad who first mentioned you. I was worried about some dumb thing that happened at school. We were discussing the ethics of stem cell research in Social Studies. I had a few points to make on the subject. After I’d been talking for a while I became aware that people in the class were giggling. I looked up and everyone was staring at me like I was a raving idiot. I suddenly realised that I had been getting a bit overexcited, waving my arms and talking too loudly.
When I told Dad how humiliated I was he said, ‘In the words of Richard Feynman: What do you care what other people think?’

Catherine is 15, in Year 10 and is a nerd. Not that she thinks the title ‘nerd’ is an insult. Far from it. She wears that badge with pride, but it’s about the only part of her life that she’s sure about. The poster of physicist Richard Feynman becomes a focus in her life and she writes to him. Through the letters, she tries to sort out her emotions, her responses by speculating what he would do in the same situation. She reads a book about Feynman and is inspired. Meanwhile, relationships at school are a mystery she struggles to unravel. It seems that her motives are always misinterpreted. Writing to Richard gives her opportunities to ‘replay’ what’s happened at school, even though she knows he’s dead. A maths competition brings together Catherine, her friend Sophie, Harry (one of the ferals) and new annoying boy, Felix. As the maths competition approaches, Catherine must re-examine her assessments of people close to her .

Loving Richard Feynman is told entirely in letters from main character Catherine to her hero, Richard Feynman. Initially she is drawn to him because of her love of science and the esteem her father feels for ‘one of the best physicists in the twentieth century’. Then she begins to read a collection of anecdotes Feynman told about his life. She idolises and idealises Feynman. Catherine’s view of the world is fairly black and white. Feynman is good, Bitch-face Renee is bad. She likes the certainty of numbers, the rigour of science. But of course, life is seldom so neat. The letter format gives only Catherine’s take on her world, but her reportage frequently lets the reader learn much more than that. Catherine’s flawed observations are full of the humour and angst that sit so closely together for many teenagers. There are themes about hero worship, friendship, individuality and more. Recommended for 13+.

Loving Richard Feynman

Loving Richard Feynman, Penny Tangey
UQP 2009
ISBN: 9780702237256

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review by Claire Saxby, Children’s Author