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The Atomic Weight of Love
     

The Atomic Weight of Love

by Elizabeth J. Church
 

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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

Overview

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.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
03/14/2016
Meridian Wallace grew up wanting to study birds. As a student at the University of Chicago in the 1940s, she falls in love with and marries an older physics professor, Alden Whetstone, who leaves her side temporarily to work on the Manhattan Project. At the end of the war, he stays on at Los Alamos, but Meri joins him, putting her graduate work in ornithology on hold. On her own, she begins to study and sketch the local crow population. As the decades pass, Meri resigns herself to a marriage devoid of passion. Then, in 1970, she meets Clay Griffin, a geology student and Vietnam veteran who, at 26, is young enough to be her son. Meri resolves to keep her distance from the disarmingly straightforward young man, but is drawn back to him time and again. As Meri considers leaving her husband for him, a sudden illness forces her to re-evaluate her plans for the future. As characters go, Meri is a little too passive, Alden too one-dimensional a domestic tyrant, and Clay too good to be true. Nonetheless, readers will enjoy following Meri’s long, vivid journey, which concludes in her 80s. Agent: Michelle Brower, Folio Literary Management. (May)
From the Publisher
"Church’s debut will likely strike a chord, especially with women who find that not much has changed in our patriarchal society since Meri’s time, and that Meri’s story might well be their own." —Poornima Apte for Booklist

“Church's debut novel explores the relationship between sacrifice and love...Church's commentary on the American nuclear family, particularly the expectations placed on women, showcases iterations ranging from doting housewives and mothers who are content in their roles to the rebellious. Each sentence drives the plot further, exploring love's limits and its spoils. But it's Church's exploration of Meridian's role in her relationships that is the most gracefully executed feat of the novel. Meridian's voice is poignant, a mixture of poetry and observation...An elegant glimpse into the evolution of love and womanhood.” Kirkus Reviews

“Oh, what a incandescent debut! From the atomic bomb tests at Los Alamos to the Vietnam War protests to the fascinating lives of crows, Church follows one extraordinary woman, who is brave to enough to challenge the times, take defiant wing, and chart her own extraordinary flight path. So engrossing, I couldn’t wait to read another page, and so alive, I never wanted the story to end.” —Caroline Leavitt, New York Times bestselling author of Is This Tomorrow and Pictures of You

“This exquisite debut is the beautifully written story of a woman who must negotiate the tricky terrain of love, responsibility, ambition and sacrifice.  In her impeccable portrayal of a long marriage, Elizabeth Church weaves together the historical and the personal and shows the impossible choices women faced - and still face - between family and self.” —Tara Conklin, author of The House Girl

“Church hits the mark in this emotionally driven debut that spans the chapters of a long life….What does love require of us? How does one strike a balance between compromise and self-fulfillment? In her debut novel, Church writes to these issues in a style that is thoughtful and elegant.”Library Journal
 
Library Journal
06/01/2016
What does love require of us? How does one strike a balance between compromise and self-fulfillment? In her debut novel, Church writes to these issues in a style that is thoughtful and elegant. Meridian Wallace, an aspiring ornithologist at the University of Chicago, falls for an atomic scientist who is 20 years older. World War II takes them to Los Alamos in distant New Mexico, where their marriage slowly erodes. Meri finds some salvation in studying the birds around her, which leads her to meet a recent veteran of the Vietnam War 20 years her junior. Their attraction is strong, but the seismic changes happening within American society make it difficult for them to create a life together. As time passes, we watch as Meri ages, continuing to examine and come to terms with her choices. With facts involving birds woven throughout, issues of love, identity, and sacrifice are underlined by the adage, "The heart wants what the heart wants." VERDICT Church hits the mark in this emotionally driven debut that spans the chapters of a long life. [See Prepub Alert, 11/9/15.]—Susanne Wells, Indianapolis P.L.
Kirkus Reviews
2016-03-03
Church's debut novel explores the relationship between sacrifice and love. Set during World War II and the decades leading up to the Vietnam War, the novel follows Meridian Wallace as she transforms from a bright ornithologist-to-be studying at the University of Chicago into an unhappy housewife. While in college she meets Alden Whetstone, a brilliant physics professor who joins the team of scientists at Los Alamos, New Mexico, to work on a top-secret wartime project. The bookish Meridian falls in love fast with Alden's intense intellect, and the two are married in 1944, at the end of Meridian's junior year. Once she graduates and moves to New Mexico, however, Meridian becomes disenchanted with married life; it isn't the passionate endeavor she had in mind, and soon she's off the path to getting her Ph.D. Years later, she falls in love again, this time with a young Vietnam veteran, and is forced to evaluate the choices she's made up to that point. The story, though spanning several decades, never loses momentum. The writing is descriptive and clean. Church's commentary on the American nuclear family, particularly the expectations placed on women, showcases iterations ranging from doting housewives and mothers who are content in their roles to the rebellious. Each sentence drives the plot further, exploring love's limits and its spoils. But it's Church's exploration of Meridian's role in her relationships that is the most gracefully executed feat of the novel. Even while describing Meridian's disappointment in her marriage, Church's writing is never overly sentimental. Meridian's voice is poignant, a mixture of poetry and observation: "I cannot escape the beating of my 87-year-old heart, the constancy of it, the weariness of it," Meridian says in the prologue. "I cannot say with scientific certainty how many times over these many decades…it catapulted with love or capitulated in grief." An elegant glimpse into the evolution of love and womanhood.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781616204846
Publisher:
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
Publication date:
05/03/2016
Pages:
352
Sales rank:
65,625
Product dimensions:
5.70(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.40(d)

Read an Excerpt

“Flight requires defiance of gravity and is really, when you think about it, a bold act.”

The professor at the front of the lecture hall paused for dramatic effect, but as far as I could see, I was the only fully engrossed member of the audience. I wasn’t enrolled in the class but had instead taken a seat at another professor’s suggestion. I was enraptured not only because I felt I was looking at a wild man—someone whose long, tussled hair intimated that he had rushed in from a hike along some windblown cliff to lecture to a bunch of physics students—but more so because I knew he could explain mysteries to me, decipher Newton and the others and render them comprehensible on a practical level. My expectations were high, and Alden Whetstone met them.

“We think about vertebrate flight as falling into four categories: parachuting, gliding, actual flight, and soaring. If a bird can soar, generally speaking, it can also perform the three lower forms of flight.” Alden paced the stage. “Don’t confuse gliding and soaring. To soar, an animal must have evolved to possess specific physiological and morphological adaptations, and soaring birds must know how to use the energy of thermals to maintain altitude.”

Oh, Lord, he was speaking my language—a physicist employing Darwin. Professor Matthews had been right to send me here. The smell of wet wool brought about by January snow permeated the room.

“We’ll see, over the course of this and the next several lectures, that the soaring form of flight has been achieved by only a few animals over the entire course of evolution. We’ll examine concepts of drag, thrust, vortices created by the flapping of wings, and the evolution of the flight stroke, without which there is no flight.”

Baggy corduroy pants. A broad red, blue, and white tie of abstract design, loosely tied as if in grudging compliance with a dress code. Frayed cuffs beneath his suit coat sleeves. And an audacious mustache that was bushier than most men’s entire heads of hair. He was the quintessential absentminded professor, which thoroughly intrigued me. This was not Jer! on the make; the professor’s attire was not calculated to attract, to stand out. This was a wholly intellectual creature barely cognizant of the physical world and its requirements. I felt myself longing to soar along with him in the realm of pure ideas, of complete and total academic isolation. I bet he’s never worn a polka-dot tie, I thought with smug satisfaction.

There was a loud knocking noise. It persisted. The class grew restless, and the noise was sufficiently distracting that none of us was any longer listening to the lecture. Alden continued longer than anyone might believe possible given the noisy competition, but finally he returned to earth.

“What’s going on?” He faced his students. “No one knows?”

Feet shuffled, but no one responded.

“It’s coming from upstairs. What are they doing? Moving furniture or something?” Alden left the stage and went out into the hallway, apparently to confront the person or persons who were interrupting his flow of thoughts. Now, there was outright laughter among the other students, all of whom were male. I looked about, trying to understand the joke.

One of the boys caught my eye. “You don’t get it, do you?” he asked me.

“What is there to get?”

“This is the top floor. Whetstone is headed God knows where.”

I was immediately embarrassed for the man who’d been speaking so eloquently. I, too, had believed that someone was dragging furniture across an attic floor overhead.

The classroom door opened, and Alden was back. Although the volume subsided, the laughter remained.

“So, no one wanted to tell me that there is no upper floor?” He stood facing us, his hands on his hips. “Top secret?”

Nothing but nervous silence greeted him. I wondered how long he’d been teaching in this particular room.

“Doesn’t matter,” he said, running a hand through his unruly hair. And then, without missing a beat, he returned to his lecture.

I liked that he was unembarrassed. It bespoke a level of confidence and maturity that I longed to stand beside.

It was known that Alden Whetstone had a reduced teaching load that year because he was working with other scientists on some hush-hush war project. How different Alden was from college boys. How I envied his ability to ignore social convention—or to be so entirely unaware of it so as to have no need to ignore it. Although he was twenty years my senior, he was still young, fired by the practical applications of his hard-earned knowledge and the associations he was forming through his war work with other world-class scientists.

I approached him after that first lecture and accepted an invitation back to his office. After nearly an hour, we left his office to continue talking over coffee. We spoke about what we believed in, what was happening in the world, and what the world might become. It was as though we’d both been starving for that kind of easy conversation and comradeship. When I was with Alden—discussing, listening, leaning across tables, fully animated—life was painted in more vibrant colors; birdsong was more elaborate, rococo.

If I’d played Mrs. Hudson’s recommended fawning dumb-girl’s role, Alden wouldn’t have paid me a moment’s notice. I never once thought about feigning stupidity in Alden’s presence. Rather, I felt called upon to stretch my mind, to show him I could run alongside him.

Still, I kept dating Jerry. Alden was so high above me. He was such pure intensity and demanding, hard work—work I was not afraid of, but work nevertheless. Jerry was someone with whom I could let off steam, laugh, and maybe even be silly.

IN THE SPRING OF 1942, newsreels that played prior to the start of films at theaters showed us the bravery of our fighting men and touted U.S. victories. It won’t be long now, we all thought as we sat in the dark, watching and hopeful, and Jerry squeezed my hand. Mother sent me clippings from the Greensburg paper and filled in details gleaned from her friends at church: Doc, Eddie, Mickey, Dean, Lester, Gabby, Rusty, and Tom—all of them dead or wounded. Mother told me Lisa Jackson, a friend from Girl Scouts, had married Buck Pemberton, who had joined the navy and was about to ship out. I signed your name to the card, Mother said, and I embroidered a nice pair of pillowcases for them.

Corregidor fell to the Japanese on May 6, 1942, just as we were finishing final exams. Jerry was horrified by the number of ships sunk by the Japanese, but even more so by the number of ships our navy scuttled or destroyed over the course of just two days, all to keep them out of the hands of the enemy. Corregidor floated just south of Bataan, and we knew that the United States had surrendered Bataan about a month earlier.

I could understand numbers—so many dead or captured. I could look at maps, gauge distances, try to contemplate vast oceans or ships’ holds packed with sleepless, sweaty, frightened boys on their way to face death. I could talk with Jerry and other students about the war—the fiery, insane world at war—but I could not know. I could never know what it felt like to face mortality.

ALDEN AND I DIDN’T really date. I think we fooled ourselves into thinking we were just 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.

I was in awe of Alden. I could only sense the very fringes of concepts that his intellect grasped with such easy, ready fingers. I worshipped his knowledge, his aloof independence and greater world experience. He was my teacher; he led me, and I followed, gladly.

We often walked together between or after classes, when Alden wasn’t committed to secret work in his laboratory. 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. Jerry always felt precarious, but Alden gave me sure footing. He’s solid, I thought as, wordlessly, we began walking once more.

My thoughts surprised me. Unconscious, unbidden, I was falling in love.

Meet the Author

Elizabeth J. Church was born in Los Alamos, New Mexico. Her father, a research chemist, was drafted out of Carnegie Mellon University, where he was pursuing his graduate studies, and was sent to join other scientists working in secret on the Manhattan Project. Church’s mother, a biologist, eventually joined her husband in Los Alamos. While The Atomic Weight of Love is not their story, it is the story of many of the women who sacrificed their careers so that their husbands could pursue unique opportunities in scientific research. Along with other Los Alamos children, Church grew up in an environment that gave her ready access both to nature and to female teachers who had advanced degrees in mathematics, chemistry, physics, biology, and other disciplines. Church practiced law for over thirty years, focusing on mental health and constitutional law issues. After circumstances taught her the brevity of life, she walked away from the law to pursue her original dream of writing. She has written extensively for legal publications and scientific journals. Her short story "Skin Deep" won first prize in Literal Latté’s 2001 fiction contest, and "Lying with Dogs" was published in Natural Bridge in 2002. This is her first novel.

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