Friday, January 14, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: Universe of Two by Stephen Kiernan

 My second read of the year is also superb!

Universe of Two by Stephen Kiernan (author of The Baker’s Secret) is a WWII novel that I could not put down, even though I thought I was tired of WWII novels.

Set in Chicago and Los Alamos, this is a dual narrative of a young couple, Charlie Fish and Brenda Dubie, whose lives are upended by the war and then hijacked by the Manhattan Project.

Charlie is probably the nicest guy who ever lived. He’s an exceptionally smart mathematician, but more hands-on than theoretical, which makes him feel insecure when he compares himself to some of his peers. At eighteen years old, he’s prime soldier material. The one thing he dreads more than getting killed is having to kill, so he’s relieved when a relative pulls strings to keep him off the battlefield. He lands a job at the University of Chicago performing complex calculations but is given no hint as to their significance. Or maybe he doesn’t want to know.

It’s in Chicago that he meets Brenda, a sassy young woman working in her parents’ music shop. Brenda’s ultimate goal is to study to become a professional organist. But her father and older brother are both overseas helping with the war effort, so Brenda and her mother have to keep the home fires burning. For Brenda, that includes flirting with and dating young men, particularly soldiers on leave. 

They meet in the music store. Charlie is not Brenda’s type. At least, she doesn’t think so. But they spend time together and it soon becomes clear they’re meant for each other.

Unfortunately, Charlie is chosen to go to Los Alamos to work on a top-secret government project. It only slowly dawns on him what they are building. His job is to design and build the detonator. In many ways, it seems the success or failure of the project all hinges on him. 

Charlie either purposefully drags his feet or he is truly stumped by the enormity of his task. But when Brenda, who hasn’t a clue what’s really going on, tells him to “be a man” and do his part to end the war, he reapplies himself to the task.

Charlie is not the only one who struggles with the morality of what they are doing. There is a whole team of young, brilliant scientists collaborating on the bomb. Many of them are sickened by what they are unleashing on the world but the momentum behind the project is unstoppable, despite moral qualms, petitions, and the resignations of some of the top people on the project.

We know how this unfolds. 

This book is devastating. It begins slowly. Charlie is such a good guy. Brenda is funny and peppy. They are both painfully innocent. As the war chugs on and the death counts rise, they grow up all too quickly–Charlie in particular. You really wish they could be spared what is coming. The main question for Charlie and Brenda will be how to move forward while carrying their tremendous burdens of guilt.

The details of the Manhattan Project are gripping. (An author’s note clues us in to what parts are real and which are fictionalized.) The pace picks up as the war winds down and the Manhattan Project achieves its mission. The novel raises many largely unanswerable questions which makes it a great book club book.


  1. I live near the University of Chicago where knowledge of the creation of the bomb is high. I am interested in the author's take on the subject. Thanks for your review.

  2. It's funny that we think we are all WWII'd out and then we still find more fascinating stories to read.