Title: The Atomic Weight of Love
Author: Elizabeth J. Church
Publisher: Algonquin Books (3 May 2016)
Pages: 320 pages
Source: ARC via NetGalley
Genre: historical fiction, womens fiction, WWII, Vietnam War, women's studies
Disclaimer: A complementary copy of The Atomic Weight of Love by Elizabeth J Church was provided by the Publisher for an unbiased honest review.
Read in July, 2016Synopsis:
In her sweeping debut novel, Elizabeth J. Church takes us from the World War II years in Chicago to the vast sun-parched canyons of New Mexico in the 1970s as we follow the journey of a driven, spirited young woman, Meridian Wallace, whose scientific ambitions are subverted by the expectations of her era.
In 1941, at seventeen years old, Meridian begins her ornithology studies at the University of Chicago. She is soon drawn to Alden Whetstone, a brilliant, complicated physics professor who opens her eyes to the fundamentals and poetry of his field, the beauty of motion, space and time, the delicate balance of force and energy that allows a bird to fly.
Entranced and in love, Meridian defers her own career path and follows Alden west to Los Alamos, where he is engaged in a secret government project (later known to be the atomic bomb). In married life, though, she feels lost and left behind. She channels her academic ambitions into studying a particular family of crows, whose free life and companionship are the very things that seem beyond her reach. There in her canyons, years later at the dawn of the 1970s, with counterculture youth filling the streets and protests against the war rupturing college campuses across the country, Meridian meets Clay, a young geologist and veteran of the Vietnam War, and together they seek ways to mend what the world has broken.
Exquisitely capturing the claustrophobic eras of 1940s and 1950s America, The Atomic Weight of Love also examines the changing roles of women during the decades that followed. And in Meridian Wallace we find an unforgettable heroine whose metamorphosis shows how the women’s movement opened up the world for a whole generation.
On Meri's 10th birthday her father gives her a book, 'The Burgess Bird Book for Children'. For her 11th birthday he gives her, Darwin's 'On The Origin of the Species'. Six months later her father dies leaving both Meri and her mother utterly devastated.
At 17 years old Meri leaves her hometown of Pennsylvania and attends Chicago University with a fierce ambition to earn an advanced degree in ornithology. She sits in on one of Professor Whetstone's physics lectures and is completely smitten by this man old enough to be her father. This is what she says about seeing him at that first lecture, ' I was in awe of Alden. I could only sense the very fringes of concepts that his intellect grasped with such easy, ready fingers. I worshipped his knowledge, his aloof independence and greater world experience. He was my teacher; he led me, and I followed gladly.' They embark on an affair fuelled, not by passion or lustful recklessness, but of joint admiration of intellectual minds. They marry and Alden takes her away to Los Alamos, New Mexico.
At the commencement of each chapter there are ornithological terms of reference which cleverly shadow Meri's experiences within the chapter they refer to.
The writing style is gently paced, and intelligent, with beautifully constructed sentences and phrases such as,"I watched the first snowfall begin as a light, dry powder and morph into those luscious, fat, lazy flakes that sashay downward and accumulate into weighty drifts." I fell immediately under the authors spell of words and eagerly devoured the pages of the book. In another poignantly beautifully written scene where the crows say farewell to one of their own, I cried as the loss and feeling of loneliness was utterly palpable and I truly believed I understood how Meri was feeling at that particular stage of her life.
The Atomic Weight of Love is primarily a love story written and voiced by Meri about the ever changing, evolving love she feels for Alden, and then in her 40's of her love for a much younger man. I found it in turns to be heartbreaking, and infuriating due to the out dated attitudes of the times, but above all an uplifting read. There is a bittersweet quality to the story and at times it simply broke my heart.
Elizabeth Church’s debut novel is an exquisite poignant tale of loyalty, trust and knowing when to let go. I truly hope there's a lot more to come from her as a writer. I'd recommend it for readers who love beautifully written literary historical fiction that will make them question their own sacrifices and accomplishments. I would also suggest it for book group readers as the multitude of topics raised throughout the book could generate some lively discussion.