Friday, April 22, 2016

The Atomic Weight of Love by Elizabeth J. Church

Disclaimer: I received this book for free from Netgalley. This did not influence my review.

For an example of the importance of voice in a novel, I recommend The Atomic Weight of Love by Elizabeth J. Church (Release date, May 3, 2016). From Meridian (Meri) Wallance’s first musings in the prologue, I was caught by the voice of this extraordinary protagonist.

Meri is a brilliant young woman who is fascinated by birds. She studies biology at the University of Chicago and dreams of becoming an ornithologist. She wants to know not just how birds fly but why. Throughout the novel, the bird (crow) imagery serves as a lovely metaphor for Meri herself and for her peers.

Meri is in school as the U.S. enters into WWII. Some of Meri’s fellow students enlist. Friends are dying. And she takes her first class with Professor Alden Whetstone, a physicist who enthralls her with his intelligence, enthusiasm, and purpose. He is likewise impressed with her. (I expect he was excited to find a woman smart enough to appreciate his brilliance.) They spend considerable time together. Eventually, they end up in bed. They are in love. (He's at least 20 years older than she is.)

Alden is tapped to go to Los Alamos to work on a secret government experiment. He is thrilled. Meri, less so. Although they have to spend the war years apart, they marry. Meri graduates and is accepted into a graduate program at Cornell. Nevertheless, after essentially no debate on the matter, she moves to Los Alamos to be with her husband–on a trial basis. She intends to defer admission for a year. Alden, of course, has a different view. She’s his wife, after all.

This is a story of sacrifice, misunderstanding, failure to communicate, and a love that falls far short of the ideal but that is, nevertheless, love. Meri lives a life she never intended, struggling to hold on to her vision of herself despite society’s imposition of a different role upon her. She lives through times of vast social and political upheaval, but this isn’t a book about historical events, per se. Meri simply tells us the story of her life, heartbreaking in many ways, at times infuriating, but in the end, uplifting.

This is Elizabeth Church’s debut novel. I can’t wait to see what she writes next!