The Precarious Balance of Life in "The Atomic Weight of Love"
A woman's search for self
Birds and Brilliance
Elizabeth Church’s novel, The Atomic Weight of Love, caught my eye, not because of the blurb but because of its cover art. My husband and I feed birds in our country yard — cardinals, bluejays, neon-yellow finches, gray doves, luminescent hummers, indigo buntings, bluebirds, and vivid orange orioles. So when I saw a book cover with botanical pictures of birds, my interest was piqued.
The book blurb further enticed me, the story of ambitious, intelligent Meridian Wallace who wants to be an ornithologist. But at school, where she never quite fits in because she would rather study than socialize, Meridian falls for her brilliant — much older — professor, Alden Whetstone. She moves to Los Alamos where he works on a secret government project, and she is soon lost in the expectations of traditional marriage and isolated by the secrecy surrounding Alden and his work.
“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.”
From WWII to Women’s Lib
Maybe you have to be a woman of a certain age to appreciate this book. Younger women can’t remember what it was like to be subservient to a husband. They may not be able to comprehend an era where women were supposed to dress a certain way, have dinner prepared for their husbands, and do whatever the man of the family decreed. Often, they didn’t drive, they didn’t work outside the home, and they didn’t know have control of the family finances. Women under the age of forty probably can’t understand how hard it used to be for females to pursue their own dreams.
No matter your age, you probably know enough about history to know about dropping the atom bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But before that could happen, a team of scientists had to develop the bomb in complete and utter secrecy.
Imagine a marriage when a husband can’t say anything about his work. When even talking to his wife about the project consuming him would be seen as an act of treason. While we can understand the urgent need for secrecy. we could see how the stress of Alden’s work, the loss of conversation, and the isolation of the community would isolate Meridian. We see how Meridian’s leaving school and giving up her degree to follow Alden to Los Alamos made her resentful and lonely. “The Atomic Weight of Love,” shows how the seeds of discontent are sown into relationships.
Searching for Self
As in her college days, Meridian doesn’t quite fit in. She is interested in her beloved birds. She is studying the social behavior of crows — a topic that doesn’t jive with the talk of the other scientists' wives. She is childless, an anomaly in the community, even among the highly-educated women who have followed their husbands there. She wants to have intellectual and open discussions about sex, politics, and war. No one else does.
Her drive and ambition set her apart.
Meridian searches for herself in her study of crows. More than twenty years into her marriage, when she is 46 and her husband is in his late sixties, she is studying her crows in a canyon when she meets an intense free-spirited Vietnam vet named Clay, who is much younger than Meridian.
Clay appreciates Meridian’s intelligence, her intensity, her drive, and her body, and an intense love affair begins. Painful and predictable, this lonely middle-aged woman has a fling with a virile, young, independent thinker, a man twenty years her junior. The reader understands why.
Meridian is a flawed human being. As is Alden. And Clay. And all of us. What actions she chooses to take are no different than the choices we’ve made which may not be the “right” ones.
Meridian wasn’t particularly likable. She was analytical, not emotional. She was driven, not content. She was an individual haunted by both the need to conform and the need to follow her own dreams.
She was also honest, admirable, and strong. And very, very human.
Decades before, Meridian had chosen to give up her career for the love of a man. When she has to make a crucial decision about the path of her life, what choice will she make? How does the weight of a love which has lasted — despite difficulties and tragedies — impact the future?
The Atomic Weight of Love touches on crucial periods of American history: the end of WWII, the homemaking 1950s, the Vietnam War, the drug culture, and the feminist movement. While the novel is pure historical fiction, (Alden Whetstone doesn’t exist,) it depicts the settings of each era accurately, from descriptions of clothing, food, conversations to the mundane artifacts of life…the introduction of the crockpot, for one.
Elizabeth Church’s debut novel delves into universal themes of existence that ring true no matter what time period:
The appeal of a powerful intellect. (If you’ve ever been turned on by the intelligence and brainpower of another person, you’ll know what I mean.)
The challenges of couples when one person is significantly older or younger than the other.
The precarious state of marriage. No matter how strong marriage is, its future is not guaranteed because life events can shake it.
The need for finding a balance between the needs of an individual and the needs of a relationship.
The effect of secrecy, guilt, and unfulfilled expectations on a marriage.
The difficulty of NOT turning to someone outside the marriage for companionship, comfort, and affirmation.
The search for equality based on intellect and ability, not on gender.
The perspective and wisdom that maturity brings as we age.
Some things never change
For me, the most poignant passage comes at the end of the novel. Meridian is an 88 year-old-woman who has come to terms with her life, her choices, and her dreams. She has finally found her purpose by establishing a foundation named “Wingspan.” The organization helps girls pursue their dreams by providing support from an older mentor from the educated female population of Los Alamos.
At the end of Meridian's life, she writes the thought I’ve had over and over…the idea that no matter how old we get, our “essential self” is still there. She says,
“I am surprised, always, because inside — where I live — I am at most 40, still eager for change, still hungry for learning, still curious, still yearning.”
If you’re eager for change and still hungry for learning, if you’ve struggled with balancing your life with your love relationship, if you’ve been angry about societal expectations that constrain rather than free you, The Atomic Weight of Love should be required reading.
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