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The Atomic Weight of Love – Los Alamos Revisited

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Elizabeth J. Church, who grew up in Los Alamos during the 1950s, writes an addendum to her novel, The Atomic Weight of Love, where she admits that she always wondered about the inner lives of her mother’s friends.  In those days, the wives of Los Alamos couldn’t pursue their own careers, even though most of their husbands had married them for their intelligence. Rather, they were isolated on a distant desert mesa, and, as Church explains, were “expected to acquiesce” to their husband’s wishes and whims.  Church also wondered whether these women’s lives were redefined in the “tumultuous” 1960s and ‘70s, after she and her family moved away.

Fortunately for her readers, Church shaped her speculations into a very provocative novel, The Atomic Weight of Love.  Meridian Wallace is the protagonist, an imagined prototype of Church’s conjectures.  Meridian’s story begins when she enters the University of Chicago in 1941.  A serious young scientist, she plans to study ornithology.  Her career track is waylaid, however, when she falls in love with her physics professor, an intellectual father figure who enchants the adoring student. Before long, Meridian is engaged to the fascinating Alden Whetstone.  Before long, too, Alden Whetstone leaves for Los Alamos where he will be working on a secret project he cannot discuss with his fiancé.

Thus the couple who drew together because of their precocious intellects and their stimulating conversations, are wedged apart by distance and circumstances.  As any reader will guess, Meridian is the one who puts her career plans on hold. She moves to Albuquerque, and then to Los Alamos where she is naïvely uneasy about the decisions she is making. The Atomic Weight of Love follows Meridian’s agonizing search for self.  As the years progress, Alden grows more and more cantankerous while Meridian grows increasingly restless.   How she copes dictates the narrative arc of The Atomic Weight of Love.

One salvation, she finds, is to catalog the behavior of crows.  Day after day she returns to the same canyon locale at the edge of the mesa where a flock of crows interacts and interbreeds.  Meridian observes their antics, takes copious notes, makes meticulous sketches, registers generational differences as the years pass.  Her passion is underscored by the author, for in fact each chapter of The Atomic Weight of Love is headed by a tongue-in-cheek category of birds and a list of fitting attributes.  Thus, the young Meridian appears in “A Parliament of Owls,” solitary, “a farsighted bird, the owl cannot clearly see anything within a few centimeters of its face.”  A much older and wiser Meridian proceeds through “A Deceit of Lapwings,” “An Unkindness of Ravens,” “A Murder of Crows,” and “A Fall of Woodcocks.”

Church uses her imagination creatively and wisely as she reconstructs how Meridian might resolve the dilemma of her constricted life.  Several options are possible, and listening to Meridian weigh the pro and cons of each choice makes for powerful reading.  The end is satisfying, I think, although I’m not certain every woman would decide as Meridian chose to do. But I give a lot of credit to Church, who has given her readers an introspective character faced with real-life conundrums.  Church also has meticulously replicated the mid-twentieth-century Los Alamos milieu, where smart women found themselves in impossible circumstances and survived.  –  Ann Ronald

Also available by Elizabeth J. Church in 2018: All the Beautiful Girls


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