The Atomic Weight of Love by Elizabeth J. Church

Reviewed by Annabel

atomic-weight-of-loveIn 1941 Meridian ‘Meri’ Wallace wins a place at university in Chicago to study ornithology. There she dates Jerry – and they have fun – but Meri isn’t sure it’ll ever go anywhere. However, she never thought she would fall for one of her lecturers. Alden Whetstone is a physicist and he was talking about the mechanics of flight and soon after class discussion leads to tentative steps towards a relationship:

Alden and I didn’t really date – I think we fooled ourselves into thinking we were spending time together. I didn’t tell him about Jerry, and while Alden once referred to an ex-wife, I didn’t know if he had a current romantic interest in his life. Nothing so mundane entered our orbit.

They get engaged in 1943, when Alden is picked to work on a top secret project in Santa Fe – The Manhattan Project at Los Alamos. He wants them to get married, and for Meri to join him there. They marry in Pittsburgh but Alden has to return to Santa Fe. She is torn – her supervisor advises her to finish her degree and doctorate, but Meri lets her heart rule her head and agrees to join Alden before completing her doctorate.

Having read TaraShea Nesbit’s excellent multi-voiced novel The Wives of Los Alamos I was very keen to see how Meri would fare in that rarified atmosphere, even there not able to talk to her husband about his very top secret and very important work. How would Meri, young, academic, not ready for children, survive there?

Many of the other wives living in the Los Alamos community are also academics, but they seem to have given in to the male ideal of marriage. Meri doesn’t fit, and starts to explore the countryside pursuing her ornithological interests – particularly following a particular group of crows.

The years pass. Meri continues her own studies. Alden is totally absorbed in his work and their marriage is just going through the motions. Now in her 40s, it is on one of her trips out that she meets a young man trekking. Clay is twenty years her junior but the age gap doesn’t matter, Meri has fallen in love again. Clay would like her to leave Alden – but Meri is torn again. Her best friend Emma counsels her:

“Take another look at your husband, try to see him with fresh eyes. See if he’s really an unfeeling ogre.” She folded her napkin precisely, used her thumbnail to sharpen the fold. “If he is, then that’s one thing. If he’s not, then talk to him. I’d do that before I walked away from all those years.”

Meri being strong-minded manages to find a way, continues her studies and lives a full life. She’s in her late 80s narrating her story to us.

This is the second novel I’ve read this year with an ornithological side-theme. In Eowyn Ivey’s To the Bright Edge of the World (reviewed here), Sophie Forrester becomes a pioneer of bird photography and as, decades later, with Meri here, observing the birds in their habitats flying freely, is a metaphor for the women’s repressed yearnings to do their own thing.

In a nice touch, each chapter of The Atomic Weight of Love is named after a collective noun for birds – each appropriate to the major themes of the chapter. We start with a ‘Parliament of Owls’ as Meri’s father carves the Sunday roast, and we work through many others before reaching the ‘Murder of Crows’ and the drama that ensues.

The cover of this book is also gorgeous, the elements of the periodic table replaced with American birds which cleverly links Meri and Alden’s spheres of work. My scientist’s brain also pondered about the title. If love were an element – where would it appear in the periodic table? Would it be a heavy radioactive element – having a definite half-life of decay – as you could describe Meri and Alden’s increasingly indifferent marriage; or, would it be one of the lighter elements – perhaps Oxygen which we can’t live without?

While the main story of the young woman giving up her own career for her husband’s, then finding a lover is nothing new, Church’s novel was an engaging read. Meri is an interesting woman throughout her life and I was on her side all the way. I enjoyed this book a lot.

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Annabel is one of the editors of Shiny New Books. Of course, ‘Love is Like Oxygen’.

Elizabeth J. Church, The Atomic Weight of Love (4th Estate, 2016). 978-0008209292, 368 pp., hardback.

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