In the spirit of The Aviator's Wife and Loving Frank, this resonant debut spans the years from World War II through the Vietnam War to tell the story of a woman whose scientific ambition is caught up in her relationships with two very different men.
For Meridian Wallace - and many other smart, driven women of the 1940s - being ambitious meant being an outlier. Ever since she was a young girl, Meridian had been obsessed with birds, and she was determined to get her PhD, become an ornithologist, and make her mother's sacrifices to send her to college pay off. But she didn't expect to fall in love with her brilliant physics professor, Alden Whetstone. When he's recruited to Los Alamos, New Mexico, to take part in a mysterious wartime project, she reluctantly defers her own plans and joins him.
What began as an exciting intellectual partnership devolves into a "traditional" marriage. And while the life of a housewife quickly proves stifling, it's not until years later, when Meridian meets a Vietnam veteran who opens her eyes to how the world is changing, that she realizes just how much she has given up. The repercussions of choosing a different path, though, may be too heavy a burden to bear.
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.
Elizabeth J. Church is the author of THE ATOMIC WEIGHT OF LOVE, which was a #1 Indie Next List selection and a Target Club Pick, and was shortlisted by the ABA Indies Choice Book Awards for adult debut book of the year and the Reading the West Book Awards for best adult fiction. ALL THE BEAUTIFUL GIRLS is her second novel.
Update: Kindle has this for $1.99 today! It's FANTASTIC! I listened to the audiobook- loved the audiobook- but I'd read it just as much!
I just can't say enough good things about this book. I really really really liked it a lot!!! THE AUDIOBOOK LITERALLY HELD ME HOSTAGE. My feet were walking on the trail - and time flew by.
Meridian Wallace is an aspiring ornithologist- a student in college. Nothing about this tidbit information - or the blub - or even the book cover - ( as eye catching as it is) - comes close to rendering the experience of how much this story delights at every turn.
Elizabeth J. Church's writing is gorgeous-- and for all the complexity of this book, it has the simplicity of pure emotion - because the characters are painted with such tenderness and truth.
There are already a variety of other wonderful reviews. I've been reading through some as I sat down to write my own: .....Diane says it was her favorite fiction read of the month. AGREE. She also liked that at the beginning of each chapter there are a few facts of different birds. I liked this too ( we have 3 birds: Phil, Lil, and Jill)....plus a yard that attracts many hummingbirds -plus we have Doves build their nest and mate in our yard once a year)...BUT.... The author does not overwhelm us with science details at any time in the book. .....Rebecca immediately warmed to Meridian as a narrator. I did too! .....Dorie was interested in this book because scientists were working on the A Bomb at Los Alamos. I was actually less interested in this... but what did fascinate me is how secretive everything was. ( BUT of course - it made sense that husbands kept their wives in the dark about what they did) - so I became more interested 'during' reading this book. Dorie was just steps ahead of me. .....Jenny seemed engrossed in a part of the story that I was most interested too: Meridian falling in love and her marriage to the older professor. The professors career takes precedent over Meridian's dreams - and she becomes a lonely housewife. The things that fall out from this relationship were significant in Meridian's life.
So, THINGS I'll ADD: .... Meridian meets another man- a geologist - A Vietnam veteran - whom she becomes friends with - later he falls in love with her.. then she with him
THIS IS WHERE I'd like to leave you...... Plus.... a few more things I think readers might want to know ( things I have not read in any other review). There is quite a bit of profanity ---but when used I think it's appropriate, IMO. There is sex and sex conversations -- and use of marijuana. ( hey... it's legal here in California now) There is a disturbing scene that takes place in the kitchen that I thought was gripping - realistic - and so well written. My heart was beating faster!
And last.... THE BOOK COVER IS COMPLETELY DECEIVING!!!! It does NOT communicate - (although an eye-catcher) - what you will find within the pages.
Love- sex- marriage - birds- education - career - feminism - war - woman's social history - loneliness- loyalty - trust - dreams...... .......a CAPTIVATING book that goes deep into your consciousness! LOVED IT!
Elizabeth J. Church had me in the palm of her hands - I'm a new fan!
4+ This was my favorite fictional read of the month. Meridian is pursuing her dream of becoming an ornithologist, able to attend the University of Chicago by a mother who wants the nest for her daughters. There she meets and eventually marries on of her professors who seems to treasure Meri's mind. Alden is a brilliant scientist himself and will soon become one of the team at Los Alamos, working on a secret project.
Life in the 1940's was narrowly defined for most women. College until marriage and then sacrificing their own ambitions to those of their husbands. I loved the character of Meridian, who never quite comes to term with what is expected of her. She tries, tries in many different ways, but cannot seem to find happiness. In an effort not to lose herself she studies the crows in the canyons at Los Alamos, keeping a chart on their habits, extensive notes on their behavior. Enjoyed seeing how Meri changes, the friends she meets, and so time passes. The fifties, the sixties where something will happen that gives her new life and changes her again. Loved reading her internal struggles, trying to come to terms with the rest of her life, the decisions she makes and what she eventually must settle with. Alden, too os a product of his times and so while I wholeheartedly sympathized with Meri, I could understand Alden. Both struggling with and against the other.
Thought the ending was good as well, now looking back from her seventies, what has Meridian accomplished in her life? One of the things I liked the most was at the beginning of each chapter there are a few facts of different birds. Murder of crows, etc. and my favorite, a charm of hummingbirds. This novel is a well told story, one of the quiet ones that sneak up on the reader, wonderfully paced and a joy to read.
The Atomic Weight Of Love is a work of historical fiction that follows the life of Meridian (Meri) Wallace. We first meet her in the 1940's, as a naive 17- year-old studying to become an Ornithologist at the University of Chicago and someone who by all accounts, has a promising career ahead of her.
At university she meets and shortly marries her teacher Alden Whetstone, an eminent Physicist who would eventually become involved in the development of the atomic bomb.
At its center, this is a classic story of a woman searching for that perfect balance between fulfilling his intellectual and emotional needs. For a short while Meri believes that in Alden, she has found that partner that can satisfy both those urges. She admires her husband's intellect and aspires to be his equal. Deep inside perhaps there's also a subconscious attempt at replacing her deceased father.
However, soon those expectations are badly shattered. This is not surprising considering the 20 year age-gap that divides them. Alden's direct involvement in a highly secretive government program and his detached personality certainly does not help. After they moved to Los Alamos the relationship quickly deteriorates and you have a sense that theirs was a marriage doomed from the very beginning.
Bored and left out from Alden’s work, Meri immerses herself in exploring her landscape and channels her academic ambitions into observing a particular family of crows and keeping detailed journals of their behavior.
For Meri, the catalyst for challenging her status quo comes in the form of a handsome, young geologist named Clay. He's a hippy, veteran of the Vietnam War who quickly falls in love with the much more mature Meri. This new relationship brings an understandable level of guilt and inner-conflict, but I appreciate that the author gave our protagonist some license to discover her very unexplored sexuality and allowed her to live a little.
What I liked about this novel:
The Feminist theme: This is the kind of novel I wish many young women would read. Meri's decision to defer her own career to follow and support her husband is the story of millions of women who had to subvert their ambitions to conform with the conventions of that era. This novel underscores the palpable impact the Women's movement had in changing and expanding those norms.
The Locales: Meridian transforms herself from a girl accustomed to all the conveniences of a modern city to relocating in the dusty, sun-parched geography of New Mexico. It takes some time, but she learns that this dry, beautiful landscape far better suits her spirited personality and her passion for nature. I also love how Meridian's very name evokes a sense of place.
The Book Cover & the quirky chapter introductions: The idea of naming each chapter using the collective noun of several bird groups was clever and creative. From "A Party of Jays" to "A Murder of Crows", this device works both as an effective way to introduce the content of each chapter and helps give structure to the novel.
The Birds: I learned a few things about crows, apparently they are very smart birds and mate for life, who knew? And yes, "a murder of crows" is the proper collective name used to refer to a group of them. I think it takes good writing to make a reader care for these rather ordinary looking creatures.
What I didn't like:
The Anthropomorphizing: I very much enjoy learning about these birds but felt the author's tendency to compare avian to human behavior was stretched a little to much. A literary license? I guess we can give the author a pass under that guise.
Confusing Timeline: Perhaps because the novel is narrated from Meri's perspective as an eighty-seven year old woman, there are moments when you need to make an effort to undertand the time and place of the scene you are reading. It was a minor problem but it was something of a distraction sometimes.
Unexplored topics: I acknowledge that this is mostly a personal issue but I thought there were a few interesting topics that were left unexplored. Most notably the ethical and psychological consequences of Alden's involvement in designing the atomic bomb, the actual original weapon of mass destruction. There's a scene that touches on that subject but I would've liked to see a deeper development of that theme.
Overall I found this to be a well-crafted, engaging debut novel. I would recommend it to anybody who enjoys a character-driven story with a strong feminist perspective.
Earlier this year I read Roberta Parry’s “Killing Time” which also looks into the era when little girls grew up to become wives whose lives were lived in the shadows of their husband’s careers. Her character, Reggie, reminded me so much of The Atomic Weight of Love’s Meridian. So much spunk! Meridian is a bit sweeter version, she’s just trying to figure out how she got to where she is, but they both have arrived at that moment when they so desperately feel the need to be seen for who they are, what they feel, how they think and for what they want to count. Equally.
Meridian, Meri falls in love and marries one of her University professors, Alden, who soon thereafter joins the team of researchers at Los Alamos. She loves him for his incredible mind; he woos her with his brilliance. Each heads into this new chapter of life with their own set of expectations.
But Alden never knew how to measure the weight of a sigh. He could not predict the moment when the petal of a spent rose would release and descend. Alden could not tell me when a screech owl would cry out from a darkened pine bough outside my bedroom window and insinuate itself into my dreams.
I loved the heading of each chapter had the term for the group of each particular bird along with some fact(s). A Charm of Hummingbirds, A Murmuration of Starlings, A Pod of Meadowlarks, A Kettle of Hawks, An Exaltation of Larks – an Unkindness of Ravens – and more.
Beautifully written, raw emotions, tenderly shared. This debut reads like every word was chosen with love.
4.75★ The author sets her story in the place where she grew up. Her father did help create the bomb and her mother, a biologist, chose to join him and live life as a committed wife and mother in a community and time “where for the most part a woman was expected to acquiesce to her husband’s wishes and invest her talents in her children.” She wanted to write a story about a woman who might have bridged the differences between those times of the matriarchs in her family and her own experiences and opportunities as a result of college and the women’s movement.
Since I’m the daughter of a woman of the same era who did not negotiate those expectations well, this was close to home on so many levels. It would be an excellent choice for book clubs. In a letter that prefaces a group discussion guide the author writes “What lines do we draw in our relationships, and is it possible to find a viable balance between achieving our potential and loving someone? What is the right amount of compromise or adaptation? When does adaptation become self-abnegation?” The themes and questions explored in the pages give voice to many of the experiences and conversations within my sisterhood of female family and friends over the decades. I was drawn in from the very start and it held my attention and appreciation through to the end.
“We have to take flight. It's not given to us, served up on a pretty, parsley-bordered platter. We have to take wing. Was I brave enough to do that? Or would I be content to remain earthbound?”
I relished this story of Meridian (Meri) Whetstone -- her life, her marriage, her career, and her choices. While I questioned some of the actions of the characters, this is a book which felt very authentic. The plot focuses on the outcome of Meri's deicisons when she tables her dreams, talent, and promising career to follow her husband to the Los Alamos labs during the 1940s .
Church's gorgeously descriptive writing (and all the bird references) made this a top book for me.
2017 NEWS! THE PAPERBACK EDITION IS OUT NOW! $15.95
Rating: 4* of five
At long, long last, a book about a woman's life of rigorous self-denial and eventual blossoming that cleanses the humid, metallic bloodiness of The Awakening from my mental palate. A dry, cold blast of piñon-scented mountain air sweeping clean a century's accumulation of moldy, clammy death-scented grave dirt.
In Church’s debut, an amateur ornithologist learns about love and sacrifice through marriage to a Los Alamos physicist and a relationship with a Vietnam veteran. Torn between two men who mean so much to her, Meri has to consider what her true duties are. “There was no good solution. No clear way out, no approach that would earn the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval,” she wryly observes. I instantly warmed to Meri as a narrator and loved following her unpredictable life story. Church reveals the difficulty a woman of that time had in choosing her own path and making it fit into men’s plans, and shows how love, as the title suggests, can be a burden but also a thing of reassuring substance. Meri longs, like one of her beloved birds, to take flight into her dreams. Whether she gets there, and how, is a bittersweet trip but one you’ll be glad you went along for.
Non-subscribers can read an excerpt of my review at BookBrowse.
I want more stars for this book. It's the best thing I've read this year, and I'm the perfect reader for it--though I can easily see how it is not at a for everyone.
Coincidentally it's the book that put me to the finish line on my reading challenge for the year, which delights me. It's going on the read again shelf. Memorable, unpredictable, smart, linear, focused, endlessly compelling, and about just about all the things I care about. Discovering books like this is why we read.
As an eighty-seven year old woman, Meri writes her memoir.
Meridian Whetstone had a healthy, loving relationship with her parents, both father and mother, but is endorsed and supported by her mother to become the ornithologist she wanted to be. Her mother, working several odd jobs to keep her at university, after her father's passing, never complained. ~ A love defined by mother's instinct.
Meri met a physicist, professor Alden Whetstone, twenty-one years older than her, fell madly in love with his intellect, gave up everything to get married, move to Los Alamos. Away from the intellectual stimulating world, embraced by his accomplishments and career, with hers on hold, and the playing field changed for both of them. ~ A love defined by intellect.
She studied crows, ravens, as an amateur ornithologist and through them compare the animal instincts of humans with those of the birds she would embrace as children. ~ A love defined by animal instinct.
In her late forties, she encountered a much younger man who opened up a new world, with new ideas, possibilities and dreams to her. He taught her the meaning of freedom and choice in the new, vastly different language of the Sixties. ~ A love defined by lust.
She developed selected friendships with other women who became her mainstay and support system. ~ A love defined by friendships.
Her life would come full circle when she finally sat down and summarized the events that made her the person she became.
It is a multifaceted story with broad brushstrokes of hyperventilating in shoe stores and also between the sheets, with testosterone clearly defined in a set of biceps and a six pack of male excellence. Oh, and spread over many many pages to boot. Yes, it firmly established the chick lit hue.
But it is much much more than that. She concluded the circles of her life in her memoirs by applying wisdom and experience to her own story.
In my humble opinion she was neither a martyr, a victim, nor a heroine. She was just an ordinary Jane Doe, called Meridian Whetstone, who wanted to mean something, be counted, be admired, and therefor had her story to tell. She started writing her memoir with a message to women.
A soft, easy read, with interesting information on birds as well as a good selection of historical events to give the story a solid background. I did not relate to any of the characters and felt excluded. Just a casual observer. The book did not rock my world; it did not make me dance on tables with excitement, but it was a good enough read. What bothered me is that the narrator's voice was a young one, not really reflecting an aged women. It was a naive, child-woman voice. Which leaves me with the question if Meri ever grew up?
The Los Alamos mileu captured my attention and I empathized a little bit with Meri's predicament to make sense of herself and her environment. Oh that instinct to belong ...! It never gets old, right?
…I wondered how many times a heart can heal. Are we allotted a specific number of comebacks from heartbreak? Or is that what really kills us, in the end--not strokes or cancer or pneumonia--but instead just one too many blows to the heart? Doctors talk of ‘cardiac insults’--such a perfect turn of phrase--but they know nothing of the heart, not truly.
Exquisite, impressive and contemplative, this is a really smart book that was not easy to get into, but the outstanding writing, the finely-crafted characters and the immersive storyline carried me through to its remarkable conclusion. This is about the many facets of love, our expectations, disappointments and the sacrifices we make, yet the narrative never veers into judgment or sentimentality. The writing is expressive, though not flowery, I feel the author did a fine job of portraying a scientist’s powers of observation with a more poetic language of introspection to weave the story together.
I’m watching the birds, still. Paying attention, observant--ever the ornithologist. Stories such as these keep me awake at night when I cannot escape the beating of my eighty-seven-year-old heart, the constancy of it., the weariness of it. I cannot say with scientific certainty how many times over these many decades it kept or deviated from its rhythm, how many times it catapulted with love or capitulated in grief.
This novel spans several decades and ponders gender politics, sexuality, infidelity, women’s changing roles and their friendships, while also illuminating how time and place influenced the central character’s life. What was fascinating to me, and frankly surprising as I have a finely-honed respect (fear) of crows, were the observations about their communal behaviors and provided one of the most deeply poignant moments in the book. These insights are offered in contrast to the characters’ lives and, in that, both reflected and diverged. In fact, all of the chapters are entitled with collective nouns for birds which sets the tone for the ensuing narrative. Not just clever, but enlightening as well.
I don’t feel as if I can do this multi-layered book justice, how much it made me think and feel, suffice it to say it is worth the journey and more than a month later it is still with me. I would highly recommend this to fans of historical and literary fiction. I can also attest to its depth of issues for book club exploration as our group had quite the lively discussion.
Our book club, Women, Words & Wit, won multiple copies of this book through a Book Movement giveaway, thank you, Pauline!
I didn't really like this book when it started. In fact, some passages so infuriated me that I bookmarked the pages to reference in this review. Somewhere around page 100 however, I stopped taking notes and was gripped by the story.
This review is tricky, because the subject matter feels very personal and so it's going to colour the review more than I'd like. I suppose all of my reviews are heavily subjective anyway but with this one I'm especially aware of it. Apologies.
I picked this book up because I recently did some work in Los Alamos National Lab. and I found it such an odd place in comparison with the other scientific institutes I'd worked at. It's incredibly isolated and closed-off. So the idea of someone exploring the sociology of the place and people on the fringe of the manhatten project was very appealing now that I'd been there. Of course I'll never tire of the accounts of the scientists working in that period but it's a fascinating idea to explore the sacrifices of the wives in wartime in such an isolated and wired place.
I wasn't really prepared (although, rereading the blurb I probably should have been) for the sense of entrapment that happens very early in the book. This book is absolutely my worst waking nightmare. In 2016 much of the focus on women in STEM, rightly so, has been to make sure there are no obstacles in their path due to their gender. But sometimes some of the subtlety in these decisions gets lost and its difficult to discuss with any but your closest friends. We talk about 'having it all' and 'learning to balance' and 'finding a mentor' but we still find it so hard to talk about expectation: what is realistic, what is normal, what is passed into our gender by society? And how do you deal with compromise in a working couple? How do you talk about compromise to your partner? The weight of expectation is an unseen omnipresent pressure. This topic has come up before in my readings about Los Alamos. Alvarez's memoirs mention meeting with Oppenheimer's wife and in passing remarking that she had been on-track for a PhD in biology but had 'rightly' given it up to support her husband. I remember how chilling that was to read for the first time - how many others had gone the way of Kitty?
Elizabeth Church explores these issues in The Atomic Weight of Love and her central protagonist may well be based (albeit loosely) on Kitty. Church tackles these issues ham-handed but unflinchingly. The prose is simple, often times a little too simple, but the nature passages about birds are stunning. The characters too seem very underdeveloped, more like caricatures playing out a role to serve the plot and make the point. Many of the book's key events feel like they're being checked off the author's list, rather than occurring naturally.
In terms of writing, characters, and originality Atomic Weight of Love is probably a 2-star novel. But the pacing and connection I felt with the topic make this a 3-star book. Part of what annoyed me so much in the first 100 pages is how meek the central character is. Meri is very focused on personal presentation which she comments on incessantly and judges those around her. She's also intent on her own intellectual superiority early in the book and infatuated with a man 22 years her senior - a mental sparring partner. It makes her insufferable and incredible. But that's kind of the point: she's so young and so naive. Despite her easy seduction she initially resists giving up her career but eventually she and her husband reason away her protests until she conforms and eventually becomes stagnant. It's horrible.
If nothing else you should read the Atomic Weight of Love to understand the slow apocalypse. Below is a photo of part of the modern-day Los Alamos lab from across the gorge where Meridian does her crow-watching. I took it in the old town where Oppenheimer and gang did their work.
The time and place, the scientists working on the A bomb at Los Alamos, are what drew me to this book. I have read other books about the families that were a part of the operation of the entire site and it’s amazing how virtually a small city was established in this lightly populated area.
Meridian Whetstone is an aspiring orinthologist who falls in love with her professor and agrees to put her career on hold and follow Alden to Los Alamos. As their relationship turns into a wife-husband scenario with Meridian playing the stay at home housewife, she becomes unhappy quite quickly. She settles on studying the crows in the area and I found the record keeping and description of this study to be very interesting.
When Meridian has a medical emergency and the doctor refuses to tell her what her problem is but defers to her husband, this is very unsettling to Meridian. I guess as a modern woman I find this so very hard to believe but things were different back in the 1940’s. However I began to like the character less as she continues to stay with her husband despite her intelligence, opportunity to leave and means to do so. I was glad that finally in her middle age something happens to bring her love of life and vitality back.
The descriptions of New Mexico, with it’s rugged landscape and of the native people were wonderful. I could almost taste some of the delicious native foods and see in my mind’s eye the beauty of the turquoise jewelry and other handicrafts.
It was fascinating to read about the author and her life in this area, her father was a chemist working on the Manhattan Project and her mother a biologist who later followed him there. She stated that the book is not about her parents but about the many women, many highly educated, who followed their husbands only to be treated merely as housewives once they were there.
I enjoyed this book although for me it was a bit of a slow read. The cover is absolutely stunning and there is much to talk about in this novel. I think it would be a good choice for book clubs.
I received an ARC of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
A bright college student marries her professor, 20 years her senior. Despite the fact that this is the early 1940s, she silently assumes that marriage will have no impact on her dreams of pursuing graduate work and a career as an ornithologist. Over the ensuing decades she becomes increasingly resentful of and estranged from her husband. There is a scene early in the marriage that reflected my perception of this novel. A dinner party concludes with the women sharing stories and pictures of their children at length which leaves our young protagonist bored and frustrated. No matter how adorable, talented, intelligent or lovable these children might be, she could not bring herself to care about someone else’s kids. My sentiments exactly. No matter how bright, thwarted, unhappy this woman was, I just could not bring myself to be interested in someone else’s marriage. The requisite affair rested on such a ridiculous foundation that I could not take it seriously. Only in chick flicks and their novelistic counterparts do boy toys walk out of the woods and straight into lust with a middle aged housewife 20 years their senior. There were some interesting themes that might have made this far more interesting had they been explored. We are briefly shown a large contingent of highly educated non-working wives who appear to have found some peace with their lives. But rather than explore the difference between them and our far less educated protagonist, these PhDs are dismissed as small-minded gossips. 2.5 stars for me.
'The atomic weight of love' the title, yes that title grab my attention and forced me to read the book soon. I started the book with high hopes but it wasn't upto my expectations. I can't interpret my actual feelings regarding it. I like few parts, those were beautifully written but the idea didn't connect. Too many things but they were not interacted, if they would, it would be a masterpiece for me. The starting page was epic, Meri is an ornithologist, war is going on and then her love life and weight of love. ALL was going on but on separate modes. At few parts connection was made and something more about to happen but the next moment nothing was there. Honestly I thought something terrific would be there regarding birds, war and love. All was there but not the one like I imagined. I have read a better short story related to birds though not published yet. Anyways I'm torn between 2-3 stars & finally ended up with 3.
In the novel THE ATOMIC WEIGHT OF LOVE, Meridian Whetstone, aged eighty-seven, introduces her fictional life story to us as a reflective memoir. She tells us about her husband Arden, and ultimately, sums up the wisdom acquired in a complicated period of time and through experience.
"I first loved him because he taught me the flight of a bird, precisely how it happens, how it is possible. ... I was too young to realize that what I really yearned to know was WHY birds take flight - and why, sometimes, they refuse."
Meridian's path is a familiar one to many of us whose educated mothers were expected to put aside their aspirations and support their husbands', wherever they took them. Often the first generation of women in their families able to access post-secondary education, like Meridian, they greeted their academic futures with excitement, stimulated by new experiences, ideas and people. Frequently, those women also were caught in the high voltage male charisma which then short-circuited their own dreams - only coming to that realization much later as they matured.
Meridian falls in love with the field of ornithology and the brilliant professor, Arden Whetstone, at the University of Chicago. When Arden is seconded to the nuclear research facility at Los Alamos to assist in the development of the bombs which eventually end WWII, the pair experience increasingly longer separations. With the war over, Meridian acquiesces and puts off her post-doctoral studies, marries Arden and then joins him in his company town in New Mexico.
It is not an easy transition. Arden works long hours and the work is classified. Meri's peers have established cliques and conservative values and resist discussion beyond Jell-O recipes and their children. Still hoping to follow through on her PhD, a colony of crows provides hours of observation, recording and sketching data that could support her deferred education. When opportunity never comes, Meridian invests herself more deeply in Arden, her crows, poetry and art; she questions her happiness and eventually makes peace with a complicated life.
The Atomic Weight of Love is highly romantic and often liltingly poetic. Meridian's journey to find inner happiness is a highly idealized version of what "could have been" for most women of that time, satisfying in a work of fiction, but rare in actuality. Church has imagined a lovely possibility for today's woman, superimposed it on her character Meridian and developed a truly wistful tale.
I know a little about this era of women. I knew one, my mother, intimately. Educated, pretty, extremely capable, she was wooed by a flashy brilliant engineer. By the time she was able to take a breath, she had three young children and had lived in three remote mining towns. Two more were ahead of her, friendships undermined by the company town "mentality" and she died with a legacy of regret. There were no urban opportunities, sometimes no library and tremendous responsibility. She loyally "refused to take flight", because it was truly the only option.
That said, I did enjoy this novel. Four stars...fiction can be a wish made backwards in time, can't it?
It's been a long time since I've fallen in love with a book, so lost in it that I forget my own time and place and feel completely immersed in the time and place of the story. I think the last time this happened to me was several years ago when I read The Lovely Bones and Anna Karenina.
The Atomic Weight of Love, highly recommended by the Amazon book review blog Omnivoracious (where I discovered it), is a debut novel by Elizabeth J. Church. It's the story of a budding ornithologist in the 1940s who falls in love with her physics professor, marries him, and gives up her graduate studies and her career in ornithology. She moves with him to Los Alamos, Nevada, where he pursues the challenging project of creating the first Atomic Bomb. Her life is lonely and barren, she tries to make do with the life of a housewife, but after losing a pregnancy and not having any children, the course of her life goes further downhill. That is until she meets a young geologist and veteran of the Vietnam War who she falls passionately in love with. But even this soul mate cannot save her. It is she alone that must chart her own course.
I truly related to the plight of Meridian Wallace and the choices that she had to make to navigate through her path. She eventually takes flight in her own way. I loved following her journey and wholeheartedly recommend this book.
I read this book about two years ago, though at that stage I didn't really write reviews here. I gave it a five-star rating and left it at that. I'm writing this more to note down how much it has stuck with me. It was a riveting book at the time I read it, but in the time since my mind has returned to it frequently. It was one of my favourite books of 2017, but I think it has also become a favourite book in a general, overall sense.
I'm halfway through her second book, 'All the Beautiful Girls', and so far it's proving to be just as good. Something about Elizabeth J. Church's writing just seems to connect very deeply with me, so I wanted to take a quick moment to acknowledge how much her first book resonated with me.
1. The birds. Meridian's ornithological studies are brilliantly woven into the storyline of this book, and I have never in my life been so amazed by crows. Church interweaves the habits of various species of birds into each chapter in ways that are equal parts poetic and poignant. "Flight requires defiance of gravity and is really, when you think about it, a bold act...don't confuse gliding with soaring. To soar, an animal must have evolved to possess specific physiological and morphological adaptations." Beautiful.
2. The women. Meridian is a fantastic character, but so are ALL of the women in the book. Once in New Mexico, she discovers a collection of neighbors from varying backgrounds and situations. From June Jacobsen (the woman with a Masters in Chemistry who runs experiments in what soil additives will produce the best results in her garden) to Belle (the feisty nurse who brings comfort to women who are overlooked by their male doctors) to Emma (the quiet but constant source of support and intellectual equal to Meridian), we see a brood of hens who repeatedly take whatever life hands them and tirelessly continue to carve a place for themselves in the world.
3. The era. The Greatest Generation is called that for a pretty specific reason. Meridian is a child during the Depression years, a college-bound young lady during WWII, and lives through the sexual revolution of the 60's as well as observing the effects of Vietnam. And through her, we see the changing roles of women across the years as well. It's a quiet, often frustrating, brand of feminism but watching her grow and change with the times gives an honest, heartfelt glimpse into what it truly meant to be "just" a wife in those times.
The Atomic Weight of Love is a gorgeous story of one woman trying to find the strength and courage to soar. It's at times heartbreaking, and there are moments which are exasperating. But there are so many more moments which are full of love, hope, aspirations for a better future, and a constant, consistent support between women. To top it all off, the writing is superb. Add this to your summer reading list, friends - you won't be disappointed.
Wow, I absolutely loved The Atomic Weight of Love! The story was great and the writing throughout the book was beautiful.
The story is told in first person perspective from Meridian Wallace, an intellectual female and aspiring ornithologist. She falls in love with one of her professors, Alden Whetstone, and the story follows her along their journey, in which she moves across the country to be with him and reconsiders some of her own ambitions in support of Alden’s - for better or for worse. The story begins in the 1940s and while the book is very appropriate for the time and place it is set in, I think some of Meridian’s struggles and internal conflicts are timeless. Sacrifice and compromise may have changed, but it’s always there, in some form or another.
”Picture after picture, a competition between the women with regard to their children’s developing talents, stunning displays of intellect, and charmingly naughty escapades. I honestly found the children cute, admired their beautiful young skin, their happy faces, but my smile felt frozen in place. As the exchange dragged on, I wondered why none of the women asked about my life, my interests, why they thought I should be content to serve as a rapt audience. These were intelligent women; couldn’t they find more to talk about?”
Not only did I become almost immediately engaged in the story, but also fell in love with the writing. It was eloquent and relatable.
“It was impossible that the exuberance that had been my father—his riotous laughter, his dogged perseverance of knowledge and truth—had simply dissipated. Where did all of that energy go? Vaporized, maybe—but into what, and where? What happened to the bounty of his being, his love for us, for me?”
“As I watched him, I wondered how many times a heart can heal. Are we allotted a specific number of comebacks from heartbreak? Or is that what really kills us, in the end—not strokes or cancer or pneumonia—but instead just one too many blows to the heart? Doctors talk of “cardiac insults”—such a perfect turn of phrase—but they know nothing of the heart, not truly.”
The Atomic Weight of Love is a definite add to my Favorites shelf.
Anyone who knows me will not be surprised to learn that I found much to love about this novel. 1) Crows! 2) Science! 3)Southwestern setting – I so enjoyed the references to Mexican food, New Mexico’s landscape, roadrunners, coyotes (so similar to Arizona’s). Of the New Mexico landscape, Church writes, “It seemed the line between life and death was easily crossed here.” Yes! 4) Fabulous, subtle parallels between crow behavior and human relationships.
Admittedly, first-person novels aren’t generally among my favorites, but this one is done extremely well. I was whisked away into Meridian’s world in a heartbeat and truly felt her struggle to be “the good wife” of the 1940s vs. her desire to feed her intellectual curiosities.
I don’t think I’m spoiling the book by praising the author’s ability to seamlessly illustrate the breakdown in communication that impact so many relationships over time. Church presents this sad reality with realism – never overly dramatic – and we are third-party observers watching the unfortunate decline, even if we might have guessed it was likely from the start. What’s more, Church juxtaposes the history of Los Alamos and its tie to the atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki with the beauty of nature, while also weaving in another war, Vietnam. Again – so well done.
I was fascinated by this peek into the lives of so many brilliant women, who – due to the generation in which they were born – had to put their own intellect on the backburner. (I actually attended a presentation at Tucson Festival of Books where Elizabeth Church spoke. She was fascinating, her love for New Mexico so evident; she grew up in Los Alamos as a child, her father a scientist there. She lives there, still, today).
As for the birds (for you bird- and nature-lovers): Each chapter uses a different term of venery as a title: A Tiding of Magpies, A Descent of Woodpeckers, A Charm of Hummingbirds, A Mumuration of Starlings (and many more). I learned much more about the Corvid family than I had previously (ravens are Corvids, and I have, for years, watched our family of nesters on the train trestle. They ARE such intelligent birds). A favorite quote/though from Meridian: “I was thinking about this: we believe in lovebirds. Not lovehorses or lovecows, or even loverbutterflies. Lovebirds.”
This is a novel about regret, ambition, the fragility of relationships, hope, the beauty and cruelty of human nature, the beauty of the natural world, the ramifications of war, the historic struggle of women to find their way and pursue their passions in a world where they were/are considered inferior, and a story about love in its many forms. I look forward to more work by Church.
I received an advanced reading copy of The Atomic Weight of Love in exchange for an honest review. I was anticipating loving this novel, but 50 pages in I realized this was something entirely different than I'd expected. I was a bit turned off by the cheesy, sentimental title but the story of a female scientist set against the backdrop of Los Alamos was intriguing so I assumed someone had just made a poor choice. I was disappointed to find that the story never really delved deep and the characters were similarly one-dimensional. The novel tried too hard to cover way too many years in the protagonist's life and did none of them justice.
Three and a half stars. I was interested in this story from the start, although the book never quite went in the direction I thought it would. The writing is mostly beautiful. I loved the way each chapter started with some information about birds. I kept reading snippets out to my husband. The first is a parliament of owls. How could I not love that! Others include a tidings of magpies, a party of jays and a murder of crows. Crows feature a lot in this book. Meridian Wallace, the main character has a passion for all birds but especially crows, In 1941 Meridian has won a place at the University to study ornithology. But then she falls in love with the much older physics professor, Alden Whetstone. His work requires him to work in a mysterious wartime project in New Mexico. Deferring her own dreams, Meridian moves to Los Alamos. But initial plans of the move being a temporary arrangement change as time goes on. And so does their marriage. Attitudes of the times in particular in regards to women and marriage and career come across very strongly and the sense of place is beautifully described. I did laugh at Meridian’s attitude towards Bob Dylan. Rather echoes my own. I was really enjoying this book until about a half to two thirds the way through, at which point I tossed it aside and wasn’t sure I wanted to finish it. In creating Clay, I felt the author had gone for Alden’s complete antithesis. There is a fair bit of use of the f word, mostly, but no entirely, in connection with Clay. And there were other things about Clay that I disliked. Despite the author’s attempts to portray Clay as a free spirited, sensitive guy, I found him annoying. The affair that ensues with this younger man and Meridian never struck me as credible. Not that I was a fan of Alden either. He was buttoned up, aloof, controlling and even cruel at times. . But he struck me as very real. He was definitely a product of the times. Despite thinking I wouldn’t read any more at one stage, something called me back although I admit to skimming. Until suddenly the book became more interesting again. For me, there were a couple of tearful bits but perhaps not the incidents some people might think. Mine were to do with White Wing and Jasper. I liked the way the story ended, which didn’t look likely at one stage. It would have been a shame as if I had given up on this book earlier as I would have missed so much. All in all, I found the majority of this book a really interesting and engaging read and am glad I read it.
A soup-to-nuts tale of a woman's awakening to her own powers.
The story tells of Meridian Wallace, a Scotch Pennsylvania, who by dint of brains and hard work, ends up at the University of Chicago, where she studies biology and dreams of going to graduate school and becoming a professor. But she is waylaid--emphasis on the laid--by another professor, two-decades her senior, a physicist who is recruited to work for the Manhattan Project, but not before he gets Meridian to marry him.
Meridian is eventually forced to New Mexico, where she is forced to put her career hopes on hold for the sake of her husband, but bridles at the life available to women there: a few are, like her, well-educated: but even better, with their graduate degrees, and so she does not feel at home with them. Most, though, are mothers and seemingly content with the life of a housewife. The one exception is a nurse she meets, a hell-raiser who--of course--dies, leaving Meridian even more lonely.
As her marriage falls apart, Meridian tries to continue to study a community of crows--which had been her dream in college, that she would get to do ethological research on corvids. But it is a desultory kind of study, done in bits and pieces. One day, while she is there, she meets Clay, who awakens her sexually and politically. After her husband dies, she then operates a center to encourage women in their growth.
The story stands in the tradition of Andrea Barrett, who has written lushly abut the lives of scientists and sometimes the wives that live in their shadows. And, more clearly, Wallace Stegner, and Angle of Repose. Like the heroine in that book, Meridian is forced into a Western frontier where her ambitions cannot take root, let alone grow. And, as in that book, there is a suggestion that a new scientific law might be crafted out of the lives of human beings, a way to measure love.
It is, of course, not damning with faint praise to say that Church does not match the work of either. It is damning to say it's not even close.
Her language is never better than prosaic. That might be because the story is told entirely in the voice of the 80-year old Meridian remembering the past, but, if so, it's not clear what the pay off for that is: why insist on amateurish prose if not for some reason? Otherwise, it's impossible to tell the difference between the author and the narrator. (Which is the case in other ways, too--Meridian is clearly giving voice to some of Church's own observations.) The science here is . . . not great? You know those books written about brilliant writers that either have to avoid giving any examples--because the book's author cannot actually provide such brilliant writing--or suffer because the author tries? The same thing happens here, except with science--the science talk sounds stilted, self-conscious, and far from the brilliance it is supposed to showcase.
The narrative is a forced march. Church focuses intently on the late 1940s and again on the 1970s, but only hints at what happens in between--but that doesn't keep her from devoting entire chapters to a period she herself is not interested in. The characters are fecklessly created, taking on ideas and opinions as needed to motivate the plot. Alden, Meridian's husband, is sometimes guilty over his war-work, sometimes defensive, as the plot requires; he has no interest in poetic understandings of science--but his first sentence is just that, and he has an interest in culture when it is needed to keep the story going. She herself introduces the idea that she loves crows with no preparation or real reason, and there is no reason, as the years passed, given why she should continue to feel so fiercely connected to them. Indeed, her work on them is not developed at all in any depth--so that when her two favorite birds (inevitably) die, all the emotion feels unearned, and unwarranted.
The book has its grace notes, but these do not really add up too much. The chapters are titled after the collective nouns of birds--a murmuration of starlings, an unkindness of ravens, etc., that vaguely suggest the chapter's contents, but nothing more. Clay's name is meant to evoke Adam--earth. Her own suggests the work of Alfred Russel Wallace, who did biogeographical work (i.e., Meridian), but there's, again, no pay off. She's frequently called Meri--Mary--but that, too, doesn't seem to mean much. (Perhaps the Wallace is in honor of Stegner, but that still leaves the problem of her first name.)
Her awakening, the book's (literal!) climax is by the numbers. She realizes her ambition has been killed off by her husband--but still has years to do something. She becomes a feminist. She learns about oral sex. She has her first orgasm. She learns how to masturbate. This is all fine, but done in such a straightforward way it feels clinical. I couldn't but help the weird, funny way Michael Malone handled a similar character's development in Dingley Falls.
There's nothing horrible here. It's a fine beach read--and this is beach season. If it's available, don't fell bad picking it up, but don't go out of your way to get it, either.
3.5 stars. "The Atomic Weight of Love" follows a familiar arc. A young woman with promising future (as an orinthologist) loses herself in her marriage to an accomplished, older scientist. They settle in post WWII Los Alamos. She is unhappy for a time and then gradually finds fulfillment.
At times the book felt trite - and there were parts that just didn't ring true to me, but I stayed involved with the story and really enjoyed the setting of Los Alamos and Meri's relationship with crows.
This was a book that left me processing and unsure of just how I felt about it when all was said and done. Let's just say that whatever preconceived notions I had (even though I hadn't realized I made any) had to be discarded. And more than once. A sleeper book that fools you with it's outer packaging, initial set up and mid-story reset, it was soft and gentle, but had hidden sharpness that cut and drew out the readers emotions and thoughts. It doesn't want to be pigeon-holed not even by genre. Is it historical fiction, women's fiction, a romance, a treatise on feminism? Erm, Yes. But no.
So now that I've got you thoroughly confused, on to the summary. The story spans many decades mostly between the 1940s to the 1970s with some on either side. It follows Meridian Wallace's life. Beginning with her childhood in Pennsylvania, to her scholarship at the university in Chicago where she has chosen ornithology- the study of birds, to meeting two men and choosing one. She is a promising scholar and her chances are strong for a doctorate and to be a leader in her field when women of her era dreamed of husband, home, and children. Meridian is quiet, but open to exploring the world and ambitious for her educational goal to gain her degree and study her birds. The shadows of WWII grow more ominous as people she knows go off to war or off to end the war.
Alden Whetstone was the teacher who challenged her mind and captivated her when she was a young university student. His fire and brilliant thoughts made her reject the more conventional choice of love for a young man of her own age with the handsome features and happy go lucky nature. Alden is older, confident, set in his ways. He struggles in social situations and is of a serious nature. He is not easy. Their relationship seems an odd match and their engagement happens about the time he is called in for a top secret project in New Mexico working as one of the scientists on the atomic bomb. They are married during this time and Meridian thinks to temporarily set aside her own studies to join Alden until the end of the war.
The war ends and Alden has no intentions of leaving his work in New Mexico. He doesn't ask, but makes the assumption that she should be the one to give in toward his career. Meridian's once hopeful future of receiving her doctorate recedes into the past as she has to adjust her life. Not easily. Alden doesn't seem to notice or truly appreciate the sacrifice she made which leads to bitterness and the realization of what she can expect now of her life. She keeps her hopes alive by studying the crows in a nearby canyon and trying various new things while seeking her niche and purpose beyond being identified only as Alden's wife. Hope of rekindling what she had with Alden in the university years dims. He never promised a passionate romance and now she is realizing that he didn't lie. Alden is Alden. He's set in his ways and expects he knows her and knows best for her.
Over the years, life ebbs and flows and Meridian flows with it until another man enters her life. Clay challenges her to live. To really live. Break out of the mold and be who she was meant to be. But there is Alden. Life didn't give her the great romance she hope for, but life has taught Meridian that there are different kinds of love. And this second time? What will she choose?
As I said, this is not an easy book. I liked it; I didn't. It was sloggish; it was brilliant. It was insightful; it was a whole lot of the same. The historical elements were well done. Each decade brought new backdrops and I thought the author did well advancing the characters through the years so that I could see how each era affected the characters, but didn't bury the story in minutia. But beyond the historical elements, there is an exploration of the social history and how it both impacts and alters the heroine. It looks hard at women's history and advancement as told by the housewife of a brilliant scientist who is stodgy, conservative, and traditional to the core next to her inquiring, interested, and open mind on the subjects of fulfillment through marriage and children, career, interest, sex and intimacy, hierarchy, and equality.
Meridian was the key. Her character was the story. She had more depth than some real life people. Shades of gray, flaws, steel, color, quiet wisdom, passion, anger, hope, and bitterness. I had mixed feelings about her. At times, I sympathized with her plight, but at others, I felt like she was being unfair to Alden. He was a man of his times in his attitude toward women and Meridian didn't realize this until later. The author never tried to make Alden a romantic hero or a villain though there are times he feels like the latter as seen through Meridian's eyes. They were woefully mismatched, but yet there was a connection that Meridian couldn't and wouldn't see because she never could reconcile after Alden took her dream away not even knowing the damage he did to their relationship because he didn't understand how to be in a real relationship.
I found Meridian more fascinating in the end than the beginning which is how it was meant to be. In the beginning, as I made example of with her failings with Alden, she is intellectual, but not clear sighted. Her life events teach her that. First through her best friend Belle, then later friends, and a lover. She is a renaissance woman and feels the constraints of her times, but it isn't until later that she opens her wings and really flies.
The entrance of Clay was a mixed blessing for me. She's a married woman, but yet I wanted her to feel what it was like to be appreciated and loved by a man like Clay. And he truly did. These two connected on all levels from the beginning. Clay was much younger, but his experiences gave him worldly wisdom and maturity to balanced out the age gap. He came a broken Vietnam war vet and she helped him heal and find direction just as much as he brought her back to life and taught her to stand hard on her convictions.
Oh the conflict I felt over her moment of choice especially with that added curve that came with it. I think the moment of choice was the crisis and high point of the book, and again, the author didn't take the easy road. At that point in the story, yes, I was crying from the pain and wonder the author had me feeling. Meridian shines and she is bright in the end, but there is a lot of darkness around those stars.
I listened to this story in audio format. Jennifer Van Dyck was a new to me narrator. She did fantastic. From the beginning, she made all the details about the birds, Meridian's monologues, and the cast of characters come alive. This could have been a really pedantic, boring story, but she had good inflection, timing, and connection to the story. I would definitely listen to more of her work.
So, what to say. Did I ultimately like this story? No. It broke my heart. Was I glad to have read it? Absolutely. It has left me pondering for days. Would I recommend it? Cautiously yes. This will not be for everyone. This is for those who want a book that engages the thoughts more so than the emotions for most of the book, but there are those spikes where emotions are acute and they are not the light, fluffy kind. There is a sad, bittersweet quality to the story that only gets stronger, but there are flashes of heartwarming joy and peace.
My thanks to Audible for the opportunity to listen to this book in exchange for an honest review.
Briefly, this is the story of Meridian, an academically intelligent woman who falls in love with and marries one of her professors who is 20 years older than her. For him, she gives up a promising career to support him while he's working on the Manhattan Project. From the outset, it's clear that he's unemotional, selfish, self-absorbed and takes Meridian completely for granted. As the years go by, Meridian becomes resentful of all she has given up for him and they grow emotionally apart. Her only comforts for many years are her absorbing study of crow behaviour and a close relationship with her BFF. To say much more is to give away too much to those who haven't read it.
My expectations were that I would learn a lot about birds from this book but I really didn't. I felt frustrated with the staccato progression through years which sometimes flew by within a chapter. One minute we were in the late 1950s, the next it was 1968. She agrees to help a young local girl with her paper on bird behaviour and the very next sentence tells us she has graduated. I also felt that the product placement was unnatural and simply there to convince us that the author had done her research on whatever time period we were in. On the positive side, Meridian's growing awareness of the fight for women's equality reflects the experiences of many women of that time and the bitterness of young men who had been sent to fight in Vietnam was very well done.
I stayed with this book until the end because I wanted to know the outcome but I wasn't truly invested in it. Something didn't quite gel for me and overall it failed to deliver on its initial promise.
Thanks to NetGalley and Harper Collins for a free copy in exchange for an honest review.
The Atomic Weight of Love is a beautifully written novel that tells the story of the life of Meridian Whetstone and, as she tells us, "This is not Oppeheimer's story. . not that of Edward Teller or Niels Bohr, Fermi or Feynman. This is not the story of the creation of the atomic bomb, or of Los Alamos. . . . This is my story, the story of a woman who accompanied the bomb's birth and tried to fly in its aftermath." This is a story of one woman as she looks back on her life and her relationships and the effects of history.
Much of the narrative is driven by her love of ornithology since she was a child. However, as a lot of women in the 1940's and 1950's, she puts aside graduate studies to join her scientist husband in Los Alamos so she decides to keep journals to record her observations of the thriving crow community in the canyons surrounding Los Alamos. Her journal is wonderfully illustrated in the epigraphs starting each chapter, weaving Meri's story, oftentimes conflicted, because of her desires and aspirations and those of society.
I loved the book, partially because my childhood was spent in Los Alamos so the references to Northern New Mexico and all that is wonderful about the southwest appealed to me.
I loved the feminist message in this book. It featured a woman who loved multiple men without any slut shaming. It featured a woman whose sacrifice and compromise for her spouse did not lead to her happiness. If featured a childless woman whose empty nest did not lead to her unhappiness. It featured a modern women in a historical context (~1940-1975) without making her plucky, stubborn or selfish. The writing was a bit overwrought for my personal tastes, but many will probably find it lovely. As a work of literature, it has great structure, imagery and character development. Highly recommended if you enjoy feminist themed historical fiction.
The author, from what I gather is new on the novel writing scene. A quick read of her bio indicates that this book draws from her personal story. I've seen this before with The Secret Wisdom of the Earth and I always wonder if these authors have more books in them.