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Friday, April 29, 2016

The Atomic Weight of Love by Elizabeth J. Church

Title: The Atomic Weight of Love
Author: Elizabeth J. Church
Publisher: 3 May 2016 by Algonquin Books
Pages: 320 pages
How I Read It: ARC book
Genre: historical fiction, womens fiction
My Rating: 3.5 crowns


In the spirit of The Aviator’s Wife and Loving Frank, this resonant debut spans the years from World War II through the Vietnam War to tell the story of a woman whose scientific ambition is caught up in her relationships with two very different men.
For Meridian Wallace--and many other smart, driven women of the 1940s--being ambitious meant being an outlier. Ever since she was a young girl, Meridian had been obsessed with birds, and she was determined to get her PhD, become an ornithologist, and make her mother’s sacrifices to send her to college pay off. But she didn’t expect to fall in love with her brilliant physics professor, Alden Whetstone. When he’s recruited to Los Alamos, New Mexico, to take part in a mysterious wartime project, she reluctantly defers her own plans and joins him.

What began as an exciting intellectual partnership devolves into a “traditional” marriage. And while the life of a housewife quickly proves stifling, it’s not until years later, when Meridian meets a Vietnam veteran who opens her eyes to how the world is changing, that she realizes just how much she has given up. The repercussions of choosing a different path, though, may be too heavy a burden to bear.

Elizabeth Church’s stirring debut novel about ambition, identity, and sacrifice will ring true to every woman who has had to make the impossible choice between who she is and who circumstances demand her to be.  

My Thoughts

"By marrying them we tacitly agreed to a contract in which we would sublimate. They did not have to subjugate - we did that for them."

This is a deep and thoughtful reflection on the life of women from a different generation. Church's book is very well written and at times, quite unusual with its mixture of history, culture, science and art. At its heart, it investigates the role of women in the 50s and 60s and the sacrifices they made once married. Goals, dreams, talents were all forgotten as they followed where their husbands led. 

The book also delves into a range of other topics. It extends the whole marriage theme and evolves it into the pursuit of empowering women. Other topics that are richly considered include: science and the atomic bomb; Vietnam war and returned soldiers; hippy lifestyle; ornithology, namely the study of crows; and generational love. All in all, I found the writing to be superior:

"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."

This is the story of a young Meri who falls in love with a professor. He marries her and takes her away Los Alamos where he will pursue his scientific career. His career and life are to take precedent, and so Meri finds she has to abandon her own dreams to become the dutiful housewife. This then takes the expected route - Meri is miserable, doesn't relate to any of the other wives, ends up finding love elsewhere, and ultimately in the end reinvents herself. 

A distracting issue is the big jumps that begin around the middle of the book - these were hard to follow and did not allow for substantial plot development. Too much time was passing too quickly and some things were glossed over rather rapidly instead of delving into the events that shaped these people's lives. It was also in parts extremely scientific:

"The experiment involved bringing a hollow hemisphere of beryllium around a mass of fissionable material."

Overall, however, the author provides prose that is poignant, as she attempts to correlate Meri's life with that of the crows she studies - how she struggles to find her wings, let go and take flight. Church provides the reader with many thought-provoking issues, at the heart of which is the examination of the sacrifices women make and the courage needed to take that solo flight.

This review is based on a complimentary copy from the publisher and provided through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. The quoted material may have changed in the final release.

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