Atomic Love

Atomic Love

by Jennie Fields

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Overview

"A novel of science, love, espionage, beautiful writing, and a heroine who carves a strong path in the world of men. As far as I'm concerned there is nothing left to want."—Ann Patchett, author of The Dutch House

"A highly-charged love story that reveals the dangerous energy at the heart of every real connection...Riveting."—Delia Owens, author of Where the Crawdads Sing

Love. Desire. Betrayal. Her choice could save a nation.


Chicago, 1950. Rosalind Porter has always defied expectations—in her work as a physicist on the Manhattan Project and in her passionate love affair with colleague Thomas Weaver. Five years after the end of both, her guilt over the bomb and her heartbreak over Weaver are intertwined. She desperately misses her work in the lab, yet has almost resigned herself to a more conventional life.

Then Weaver gets back in touch—and so does the FBI. Special Agent Charlie Szydlo wants Roz to spy on Weaver, whom the FBI suspects of passing nuclear secrets to Russia. Roz helped to develop these secrets and knows better than anyone the devastating power such knowledge holds. But can she spy on a man she still loves, despite her better instincts? At the same time, something about Charlie draws her in. He's a former prisoner of war haunted by his past, just as her past haunts her.

As Rosalind's feelings for each man deepen, so too does the danger she finds herself in. She will have to choose: the man who taught her how to love . . . or the man her love might save?

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780593085332
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 08/18/2020
Pages: 368
Sales rank: 164,488
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.50(d)

About the Author

Jennie Fields received an MFA from the Iowa Writers' Workshop and is the author of the novels Lily Beach, Crossing Brooklyn Ferry, The Middle Ages, and The Age of Desire. A Chicago native, Fields was inspired by her own mother's work as a University of Chicago-trained biochemist in the 1950s. Fields now lives with her husband in Nashville, Tennessee.

Read an Excerpt

chapter one

The hot touch of the city still on her, Rosalind unfastens her stockings and drops them in the bathroom sink with a handful of washing soda. A habit from the war years. She made it through 1942 to 1944 with two stalwart pairs because she treated them like rare orchids. Jesus. She knew girls who had to draw lines up the backs of their legs because they'd torn their last pair and couldn't buy new. Lines that by two p.m. were smeared like lipstick after a desperate kiss.

One didn't lose the feel of the war, the rationing, the terror of opening the newspaper each morning and seeing the worst. Rosalind would never forget the sting in her throat watching the man next door weep as he changed the blue star on his Sons in Service flag to gold. There were no sons in her family, but she and Louisa did their bit. For a while Louisa polished torpedoes in a defense plant. And what Rosalind did one might say ended the war altogether. But she knows it will haunt her until she dies.

c c c

These days she stands behind the Used and Antique Jewelry counter at Marshall Field's department store, sorting and selling. There are lives entwined in the artifacts she peddles: tucked behind an oval of glass on the back of a Victorian brooch, a perfectly braided plait of silver hair from someone's mother. A ring glittering with a row of gems-a ruby, emerald, garnet, amethyst, another ruby, and a diamond-the first letters of each spelling "regard." Georgian men gave these rings to women they loved but couldn't marry. Rosalind can't help wondering about a woman who'd wear evidence of love she could never fully possess.

Rosalind is a scientist. After the war, returning GIs took the important jobs back from women. You can go now. We've returned. Chances are she'd have lost her spot even if things hadn't gone wrong with Weaver. It doesn't mean she doesn't miss her days in the lab.

On her way home, stepping out of Field's tonight, tired and sad, she passed an extraordinarily tall man leaning against the Summer Frolic! window. He was openly staring at her with remarkable blue eyes. At Wabash, she glimpsed him again. When she crossed Erie, there he was, his fedora pulled low over his brow, hurrying to catch the light. Broad shouldered. Powerful-looking, with a purposeful stride. That's when Rosalind noticed he was pressing his left wrist against his ribs-like a woman holding a purse to keep it from being stolen. A war injury, maybe? He must have trailed her onto Lake Shore Drive, for when she turned down the street to her entrance, she caught a flash of blue eyes watching from across the street.

Frank, her doorman, ushered her in. "Miss Porter. Best time of year, isn't it?"

Maybe that fellow was just going her way, a coincidence. All through the war, men flirted with her until they found out what she did. Braininess always blunted her appeal. Now that she's thirty years old and still unmarried, people have begun to call her "handsome." She hates the damn word. It would bolster her self-esteem to have a stranger find her attractive. Her biggest fear is that she will become that woman-the one who lives alone, whom no one notices when she walks down the street. A woman who's become invisible, negligible. Poor Miss Porter. She never had much of a life.

c c c

Cranking all the living room windows open, she invites the lake breeze into the room. No matter where she's gone to follow work (and Weaver, God help her)-Tennessee, Washington, the deserts of New Mexico-she always ached to return to this glittering lakefront, its sailboats and towering buildings.

Shucking her blouse, removing her brassiere, she lets the breeze chill her perspiring skin. Living on the nineteenth floor, facing the water, no one can see her. She does this every hot night, a ritual that lets her momentarily wear the cool breath of the lake. Her nipples harden in the draft. Her hair lifts off her shoulders. Once, she was a sensual woman, a woman who'd learned to seek pleasure. It was her secret. And the desire for pleasure hasn't stopped, just the means to satisfy it. Between her naked breasts dangles the chain Weaver gave her long ago, a tiny gold-and-platinum box swinging from it. She's rejected all that pertained to Weaver except this, an antique he brought back from England. The miniature box has a lid that can be opened. A shredding piece of parchment hides within, the word "Patience" written on it in faded brown ink. She should give the necklace up. She should forget about Weaver forever. Wearing this trinket is hardly better than a woman cherishing a regard ring. But what she should do and what she is capable of doing are often two sides to an unsolvable equation.

Having lost her job with the project, she can now barely scrape together enough money for the Lake Shore Drive apartment she rented with such ambitious dreams. She'd broken into the top echelons of science. Nobelist Enrico Fermi mentored her, believed in her, counted on her. He'd turned his prized student into an asset. And for a while she got to swim in the warm waters of elemental discovery, all while earning more money than most women could ever expect. The apartment's dazzling view, the neat kitchen with its modern pullout range, the doorman, and the in-house commissary remind her that once she was no ordinary girl. Now she feels less than ordinary. But at least her present job won't end up killing more than 150,000 people.

c c c

In the midst of supper, her telephone rings. Having gone to the trouble of baking a pork chop, as thin and sad as it is, she's not going to answer the damn phone. Later, after the dishes are washed and she's taken her bath, the phone rings again. She knows who it is. Louisa never calls past nine. Her girlfriends are too exhausted by their children to ring at this hour. Her best pal, Zeke, is out of town. She feels her jaw tighten. She could decide not to answer. But the curious scientist in her can't tolerate unanswered questions or telephones.

"Hello?"

"Rosalind."

She takes the gut punch of the mellifluous voice, the crisp British accent. He's called three times this week.

"Roz. Are you there?"

"What do you want?" she asks.

"You." She feels sick. He is everything she abhors. And everything she craves.

"Weaver, leave me alone. I mean it."

"Listen. I need you to hear me."

He's just begun calling again. After four years of silence. After he stole the years when she might have found a husband. After he robbed her of her career.

She hears him take a deep breath. "Roz, we were as close as two people can be. I was better with you. I know you were better with me. Please tell me you'll see me."

"No."

"Just once. So I can explain-"

"What could you possibly explain?"

"What happened."

"It doesn't matter anymore." But of course, it does. "You told me to never speak to you again. I assumed you meant it."

"No. No! I'm going to explain all of that. Listen, here's my number. When I was off in Los Alamos, I turned off my phone and lost my old number. Please write the new one down. Do you have a pen?"

She doesn't and has no intention of finding one.

"Hyde Park 3-5806. Got it? Hyde Park 3-5806." He repeats the numbers deliberately, hypnotically. "I'm saying it one more time. I know how your memory works. Hyde Park 3-5806. Call me." Later, as she lies in bed, the prefix and digits play in her brain-a poisoned refrain.

c c c

The men in the lab called one another by their last names. So she took to calling him Weaver. Hazel eyes of constantly changing color, impressive brown hair, a dimpled Cary Grant chin. He was the cartoon of a good-looking man. He knew it, and this was the thing she disliked most about him. His swagger. His certainty. She was aware from the start the man was a flirt, and not just with her. His tony accent would have thrilled any girl. Weaver was recruited from Cambridge University to join the Manhattan Project in New York. Fermi brought him to Chicago a year after Rosalind began in the lab.

When she asked Weaver if he liked the city, he said, "It doesn't matter where I am as long as I'm working on something important." She wanted him to cherish Chicago, to see its brawny wonder, to note the architecture and the lakefront. She told him it was the ultimate American city. The heart of the country. Weaver did appreciate food and art. "There are ripping good steaks here. I'll give you that." But he was a man who lived in the hills and valleys of his equations and theories, lived for proving himself right.

Science always gave them something to talk about. She and Weaver loved to argue about neutron sources. Had Fermi walked away from powdered beryllium too soon? She thought so. He didn't. And what about this secret new element, plutonium, produced by bombarding uranium-238?

"There's our future," she said.

"It's too hard to produce."

"That's what we'll create at the Hanford Site. I'll bet you a thousand dollars."

"I'd rather it was a thousand dinners together." He reached out his hand to seal the deal and then drew her hand to his lips. He still owes her years of dinners.

Rosalind had her own vision of what she wanted out of the project. She knew that piercing a single uranium atom could create more than three million times the energy of fossil fuel. If harnessed, channeled, it could be put to constructive use, heating cities and running machines in a clean, endlessly available way. But when she shared the idea with Weaver, he smirked.

"Duchess, the Nazis are working on an atomic weapon. Right this minute in their little lairs, twirling their mustaches. No one is thinking about anything but the war right now. We're dedicated to self-defense, pure and simple."

She was annoyed but not surprised. She watched the men around her and was disturbed at how much they enjoyed the war, seemed stirred to life by the conflict. Marking trees, proving themselves right, defeating others. The ability to draw power from an atom: Could it ever be safe in male hands?

chapter two

In a restaurant like the Berghoff, pulsing with families, couples, tables of six, a lone diner is bound to stand out, especially one as tall as Szydlo. Which is why he's asked for a spot by the left wall: far enough away from Rosalind Porter's table for four, close enough to observe her. As Rosalind leans toward her niece, her golden earrings glimmer against the ebony of her hair.

Szydlo's been watching her for two weeks now, could draw her with his eyes closed: the shiny black hair barely contained by tortoise combs, skin as pale as milk, wise arched brows. She could be Hedy Lamarr's sister. Once, he passed close to her on the street, just to be near, not forty paces behind. And what he picked up wasn't perfume. Instead, the scent of warm honey. He thinks of it when he's restless in bed: the pure, round aroma of her. And it arouses him despite himself.

Watching Miss Porter speak to her brother-in-law and shake her head at her sister, he realizes that up till now, he's seen her as a lone figure. So it's fascinating to note, even in this moment with other people around her, there's a side flick of her eyes, a glance down at her hands, that says even among family, she feels apart.

This is what he's learned about Rosalind Porter: She shops at the A&P and buys simple, cheap things as though she's on a budget-fruit from the bruised bin and the cuts of meat on sale. She walks with an abstract look as though her mind is awhirl with facts and figures. He's watched her at the bank pointing out an error in her account. The manager came by to apologize, so she must have been right.

She's organized, habitual, leaves the apartment at the same hour each day and arrives home at the same time. She rarely sees her friends because they live in the suburbs. When she talks to them on the phone-he experiences a shameful delight listening in-they rattle on about themselves, their children, and their husbands, and she encourages them. They only ask how she's doing at the end of the call, then hurriedly ring off. The exception is someone named Zeke. Zeke asks her innumerable personal questions. He has all the sway and female flirtatiousness that Miss Porter lacks. He's clearly an old friend. When they go out to dinner together, she hooks her hand into Zeke's elbow. When she speaks to him, she looks up into the sky and laughs. There's love there. Just not the kind most people understand.

Miss Porter has no obvious religious affiliation, rarely wears a hat, often dons sandals to walk to work. Once, on Lake Shore Drive, she stopped to look out at the lake for more than five minutes. Szydlo had to stand in the shadows of one of those big stone houses to watch her, hoping no one would come out and tell him to get off their lawn. He was transfixed by her full skirt puffing taut as a sail in the lake breeze. Her black curls flared into a luxurious corona. When she turned, she looked as though she didn't know where she was. What had she discovered in the dark wink of the lake?

As she talks to her niece now, he notes she suddenly seems blissful and intimate. The tender way she pets the girl's hair, the way she leans toward her, it's obvious how much she cherishes her mirror image, this ten-year-old girl who looks astonishingly like her. If Rosalind Porter is a lone, icy figure, her love for her niece melts her.

c c c

"Should I order the Wiener schnitzel or the sauerbraten?" Ava whispers to Rosalind. Ava's been a regular at the Berghoff since she was two. No kids' menu for her.

"Do you feel in need of a hug or a giggle?" Roz asks.

"Which is which?"

"The hug is the sauerbraten. The Wiener schnitzel is more fun."

"Why haven't I had it? Wiener schnitzel. Wiener schnitzel! You say it."

Rosalind does until they're both laughing. Dinners with Louisa, Henry, and Ava are Rosalind's true north. Louisa is twenty years older than her, the only mother Rosalind remembers, and she feels closer to Henry than she ever did to her father. After Louisa was born, their mother was unable to have another child. And then in her forty-second year, she was astonished to find herself pregnant. Six months after baby Rosalind arrived, she was dead from ovarian cancer. Was it the cancer that had made her fertile at last? Or was it the pregnancy that set the cancer on its fatal course? The result, in any case, was a motherless child.

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