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.
The Atomic Weight of Love essentially tells the story of Meridian Wallace as she looks back over her life from her 87 year old standpoint. It starts with her early childhood memories in the mid 1920’s but we really start to get more of a sense of who she is when she starts college as a 17 year old freshman in 1941. It’s not a year by year account but concentrates really on the main periods in her life that have made her the woman she is.
The young Meredith could best be described as a bit of a bluestocking, given her intellectual pursuits and lack of interest in fashion and contemporary culture. Her interest in ornithology was an all consuming passion that made her a bit of an oddity and a ‘project’ for her landlady and fellow lodgers. Yet despite this she manages to attract one of the popular male students until he enlists in the army and Meredith’s attention turns towards Alden Whetstone. Alden is all she believes she wants in a man, theirs is a meeting of minds, that becomes a relationship and an eventual marriage that overlooks the 20 year age gap. When Meredith follows Alden to Los Alamos to pursue his career, it results in changes that neither anticipated or could have predicted.
When I first started this book I was a bit bewildered as to why I’d first chosen it, as while I like birds, a book that revolves to a fair degree on ornithology would not have been my first choice. However you’ll be surprised at how engaging the life of a crow can be (I’m not being flippant here) and the use of collective bird nouns to head each chapter was an interesting touch. Meeting the young Meredith was a delight as was her father with his tall tales and long suffering wife, it drew me in enough to want to read more, and accept the bits I thought I’d struggle with (which I didn’t).
What I enjoyed about the book was the personal insights into some of the major historical events of the period. The background to the creation of the atomic bomb under the Manhattan Project and it’s being dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki may have resulted in Japan ending the war but had devastating long term consequences. What I was unaware of, was that 20 years later, the research of these same scientists were responsible for napalm-fueled destruction and use of Agent Orange defoliation in Vietnam. The social background to the Vietnam War, the returning veterans and rioting was also an interesting feature of the book for me. I visited Vietnam last year and got a different perspective of the conflict that in Vietnam is called the American War. It made me more aware of the issues and consequences than I had been as a teenager growing up in the early 70’s.
The social and cultural norms of the period were also well described especially with the regard to the role of women. I felt for Meredith as she struggled to fight against the intellectual subjugation of women and was wholly sympathetic to her aversion at playing the ‘good little wife’.
What really kept me reading though was the changing nature of her relationship with Alden, it brought to mind the idiom of ‘be careful what you wish for’. In her pursuit of Alden for his intellect, she got what she wanted only to discover that maybe that wasn’t what she wanted after all. Her meeting with Clay raised many questions about the nature of her marriage and what she wanted, while her joyous friendship with Belle encouraged her to be herself. Following her friendships and relationships was at times painful and thought provoking and brought into focus her strengths and vulnerabilities. I liked Meredith and while Alden was at times unsympathetic, he was as much a product of his time as Meredith, only he had the advantage of being of the correct gender to be able to pursue his life goals without being questioned, impeded or undermined.
This is a thought provoking and interesting read that I’m pleased I overcame my ornitholigical misgivings to read.
I received a review copy in return for an honest review.