When Rita F. Maggio, proprietor of Booktowne, handed me the galley of The Atomic Weight of Love by first-time author Elizabeth J. Church two weeks ago, she had a twinkle in her eye. “This is already generating alot of buzz. Take it home and tell me what you think”, was her too-good-to-turn-down invitation. At first I deferred, reminding Rita that I much prefer non-fiction to fiction and wouldn’t be the best arbiter of whether or not Church’s novel due out in May deserves to be hyped. It does.
Because I’m not given to reading fiction, I had no idea what a gift Rita was giving to me when she placed The Atomic Weight of Love in my hands. Nor can I draw comparisons for you between this work of fiction and others, as is customary in positioning the narrative voice of debut novelist. But I’ll try. As others have noted, there is some similarity in spirit to The Astronaut Wives Club, but that is promoted as a true story. And the narrative opening introducing Meridian Wallace in her 88th year has the feel of James Cameron’s use of Rose Calvert in The Titanic. So how fictional is this novel? There are clues from Elizabeth’s upbringing that elements of truth exist in it (isn’t every first novel supposedly semi-autobiographical?). From a bio sketch:
“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.”
Meridian Wallace’s mother recognized early on that she was a very bright girl. The name Meridian confers scientific precision, and Meri was born to parents who set high standards for her -particularly her father, who was rigorous in his demands. Meri’s father died of a massive heart attack at age 43, when she was only 10, and she immersed herself in her studies as a salve for the emotional wound. Although math came easily to her, science was her passion. Her single mother slaved for others so that Meri could attend the University of Chicago to obtain a biology degree with a focus on avian studies, with plans to earn an advanced degree in ornithology. No bird brain was she.
Self-sacrifice is the central theme of this book, and it intensifies when Meridian falls in love with her professor (Alden Whetstone, 20+ years her senior) and forgoes her pursuit of a Ph.D. to relocate with him to Los Alamos, New Mexico. As Meridian notes in her prologue, Alden is cast as one of the scientists who created the first atomic bomb at Los Alamos along with Oppenheimer, Teller, Bohr, Fermi, and Feynman among others. But this is not their story; it is the story of a woman who represents other women who were made to feel more as subordinates than partners in marriage. Church is masterful in her portrayal of Meridian as a feminine trailblazer, and it’s hard not to cheer for her as she confronts male chauvinism at crucial junctures in her life. Her husband is insensitive to her needs, and he is downright cruel when she suffers through a failed ectopic pregnancy. The dialogue deftly goes ‘round and ‘round the “he said/she said” blame game leaving you to wonder how much longer the schism can continue before their relationship irreparably fractures.
Meridian is torn at various points in her life by divided allegiances, and Church plays on our emotions when Meridian meets a young man in the wild (Clay, 20 years her junior – turnabout being fair play) with whom she carries on a torrid affair. She loses a note with her lover’s contact information, anxiety-laden that Alden will find it, and Church leaves us in suspense about whether he does. Just as their relationship hits bottom, and Meridian decides to leave Alden and follow Clay to California, she learns that her husband has terminal cancer. Did she decide to stick it out with Alden to the end so that she would cash in on the wealth she accidentally learned he had accrued?
There are many longings and misgivings that Meridian suffers along the way, but in the end she triumphs as a mentor for young women who develop their own set of brass balls, to turn a phrase in the novel. I know it’s a cliché, but once I started turning the pages of this incredible book, I couldn’t put it down until I turned the last one. It is timely because of the push these days to encourage women to enter the sciences, and to stand on their own two feet. How well Elizabeth Church is able to tell this story through crows’ feet is something that you’ll have to wait until May 3rd to find out. But you can email Rita@BookTowne.com to put a copy on order for now; then thank me later.