THE ATOMIC WEIGHT OF LOVE
ELIZABETH J. CHURCH
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
$25.95 hardcover, available now
Rating: 4* of five
The Publisher Says: 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.
**ALGONQUIN BOOKS OF CHAPEL HILL SENT ME THIS REVIEW COPY. THANK YOU!**
My Review: At long, long last, a book about a woman's life of rigorous self-denial and eventual blossoming that cleanses the humid, metallic bloodiness of The Awakening from my mental palate. A dry, cold blast of piñon-scented mountain air sweeping clean a century's accumulation of moldy, clammy death-scented grave dirt.
And that, in case I am being unclear, is as rave a review as a novel not aimed primarily at me is ever likely to get. How utterly refreshing it is to have a heroine whose many personal sacrifices are made 1) NOT for her children and 2) result in a genuine, joyous opening of her own and her friends' eyes to the very real obstacles faced by young women in making independent lives for themselves and each other. It seems a shame that this is fiction, in point of fact. Meridian Wallace Whetstone should be a real woman. (I am quite sure that Author Church composited many of the women she grew up among into Mrs. Whetstone, but she...Whetstone...is so lovingly limned it seems a shame she isn't "real"-real.)
We meet Meridian in the fullness of her life as she glances over her shoulder down the slope of her life's mountain. It is a tried-and-true narrative technique, and one I've always been a bit suspicious of; I put my reservations on hold because, early on, I came to trust Author Church and her choices:
I remember an ozone-scented April afternoon when he pulled my hand from my raincoat pocket and held it in his hot, enveloping hands. Abruptly, suddenly aware of his own gesture, he paused in his description of atomic half-life, radioactive decay. We stood on the rain-darkened campus sidewalk, looked at each other, and I used my free hand to tuck a curl of his hair behind his ear. I felt so calm with Alden. ...[He] gave me sure footing. He's solid, I thought... My thoughts surprised me. Unconscious, unbidden, I was falling in love.I resonated with this description of the moment of falling in love like a gong. Okay, then, I said aloud, where to now?
Where to indeed. We went to the altar, metaphorically anyway, as Meridian and Alden marry in the rush of wartime; Meridian remains in school, takes her bachelor's degree and is accepted into graduate school at Cornell, while Alden lives and works in Los Alamos on the Trinity Project. What comes next is, I suppose, the central incident of the novel. As one might expect, Alden is offered a permanent place at the Los Alamos research facility that succeeded the Trinity Project. As Alden most clearly expected, Meridian was to drop her own plans and fall into line with his. There was some sense to that in the day: His job was both prestigious and well-paid, whereas her career after graduate school, even after a Ph. D., would never be either of those things. Women in academia, as in all other parts of the postwar economy, were not accorded the respect or remuneration that men were. I am told things are different now. *snort*
Meridian adjusts herself, not entirely willingly, to a culture of secrecy as the wife of an employee of "the Lab" as it is referred to. She adjusts herself to childlessness with much greater ease, especially after an ectopic pregnancy. Alden isn't so sanguine about that. He thought he had made himself clear in their courting days, referring to his first wife's miscarriages, as wanting children. Their absence of communication is beginning to tell on their relationship, but neither is equipped with the words or the inclination to reach beyond his or her own ideas of communication. Each is perfectly clear...to themselves, anyway...so what is there to do but accept the other's limitations, sigh, and move forward?
The issue is forward which way. Meridian's disastrous ectopic pregnancy has led her into the life of a woman nurse, Belle, who is wide-open, fun-loving, outspoken, and married to one of the Lab's security guards. It's instant chemistry between the two women, a best friendship that is unique in Meridian's experience and comes to be the most important relationship in her life. Alden, unsurprisingly to everyone except Meridian herself, wants none of it, and makes himself obnoxiously clear about it. So Belle stays exclusively Meridian's friend and remains a touchstone in her life until its end.
Years tick by, Meridian brings her widowed mother from Pennsylvania to New Mexico for her one and only visit to see this strange new place her only child has made her home. Mother is an old-school working-class mama. She cleaned houses and took in laundry and did without any selfish luxury to be sure her daughter could go to college and be more than she herself had had the education to be. We can only guess at her feelings, since Meridian is our first-person narrator. This is one of the risks of first person narration, that some major emotional seams are left unmined. I would have loved to hear more of and even from Mother. Nonetheless, Mother comes through her visit to the Brave New World and the knowledge of her daughter's increasing isolation from and anger towards her husband in true Mother fashion. She writes Meridian a thank-you letter, sends a charmingly left-field gift of a hostessing manual, and offers some excellent insight:
Maybe I didn't teach you enough about how couples get along or about the necessary compromises wives must make. Love does not stay romantic. It changes. Sometimes it's even boring. ... Don't ask Alden to give your life meaning.Yuh-huh. Every grown-up in the room knows what the lady's talkin' bout, though I surely hope that nowadays it's *both* parties who compromise. I don't have the liveliest confidence in that assertion, but don't nobody mess with my denial, 'kay?
Meridian sets her sights on making her life mean something. She lines up activities like ninepins, with and without Alden, sets about knocking them down, and thus distracts herself from her increasing isolation from her emotional core. She does continue her undergraduate interest in crows by observing the families of crows an easy hike away from Los Alamos. It leads her into discovering art, drawing then watercolor painting. The years continue to tick by. The inevitable happens when Meridian learns that her mother, her life's bedrock for her entire thirty-nine years on the planet, has died. She returns to her Pennsylvania home alone as Alden is too busy to attend the ceremonies with her. The return itself is her first ever airplane flight:
It was magic to be above [the clouds], to see their uppermost contours, the way they caught the light and held it, their vast shadows moving upon the face of the earth. I wished I could open the window and know what the world sounded like at that altitude. I thought about the solitude of that world, how it must be inhabited by the voice of the wind, only. ... I thought about what my crows saw as they flew above canyons and treetops, the birds-eye view of life. They would recognize specific trees, perches, and nesting sites from a completely different perspective than I could. Their maps differed from mine; they knew the topography, the contours of the landscape, on a much grander scale.Nothing makes me happier than beautiful appreciations of the value of perspective. Meridian has lost her anchor and is floating far above the mere mundanity of land; she gains from that loss a brand new idea of her relationship to land. So nicely done, Author Church.
Returning to earth and to Alden, Meridian is no longer content to jog along in her well-worn path. She casts about for something, anything, that will both satisfy and fulfill her. It's one thing to want satisfaction and fulfillment, and quite another to know it when you see it; yet another to accept the gift that the goddesses have given you. Clay enters Meridian's life at their mutual peak. She is a woman in her prime, forty-six; he is a twenty-five-year old man fractured by war and healing himself with the one universal balm, the world of nature. Their courtship is abbreviated, their love urgent, their time limited, and for all that it transforms each of them into so much more than either would ever have been without the other. Many new experiences are had:
Next to his stove lurked a bowl containing an ominous dark brown liquid and pale, beige cubes of some unidentifiable matter.I suppose an equivalent sense of being completely at sea would be a well-off woman today falling for a rapper, someone with few if any cultural touchstones in common with her. Equally laughter-inducing is Clay's introduction of marijuana to Meridian. Author Church's description of that is also big fun, but too long for my arthritic fingers to transcribe.
"This is dinner?"
"Tofu. I'm marinating it in soy sauce."
"Tofu. It's bean curd, or coagulated soy milk."
"You can't afford meat? I could have brought some steak or chicken."
"I'm a vegetarian, Meridian. I don't eat meat."
I stood there, flummoxed. Now I was involved with a vegetarian hippie.
Happiness and fulfillment, emotional and sexual, must needs be fleeting in drama (and all too often in life). It is obvious to Meridian from the start that this isn't a life-long love affair. Clay wants her to leave the stale mundanity of her marriage to Alden, and works long and hard for her to acquiesce. She does, and the goddesses exact their price for the brief interlude of joy: Alden is dying of cancer.
That is the end of the affair. Only it isn't, because like every Great Love I've ever known or read about, the Greatly Belovéd is always part of one's mental furniture. (Twenty-four years after his death, I still have mental conversations with my own Greatly Belovéd, and I expect I always will.) As Meridian grieves the loss of her intimate enemy, she grows into the fullness of herself she glimpsed for the first time during her passion with Clay. She takes charge of herself and sets about taking charge of a corner of her world. Her life is now about making changes in the worlds of young women in New Mexico using the sizable wad of money that Alden socked away before his death, and which Meridian had to struggle against a restrictive, almost vengeful, trust to get control of for herself.
It is a wonderful third act to a long life, making a difference in the lives of the young. And the ending of that journey is where we began, where Meridian began talking to us. Remember the reservations I set aside at the beginning of The Atomic Weight of Love? I am so glad that I did, because this narrative frame is exactly what made the ending of the book so very deeply satisfying and so beautiful. I can't bring myself to say why, but you will, I very much hope, see for yourself soon.