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The Atomic Weight of Love: A Novel by…

The Atomic Weight of Love: A Novel

by Elizabeth J. Church

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Meridian Wallace has a passion for ornithology and is studying biology in at the University of Chicago during the early 1940s. She falls in love with a physics professor who is twenty years her senior and they marry. Putting her desire to study crows on hold, she moves to Los Alamos in New Mexico where her husband is part of the Manhattan Project; researching and developing the first nuclear weapons. Years pass and Meridian, who has sacrificed her studies and become a housewife, becomes increasingly more unhappy and unfulfilled as she grows apart from her husband. As a pastime she observes a 'murder' of crows that live nearby, and keeps detailed journals on their behavior. As she learns more artistic skills, she starts sketching the crows in her scientific journals which compliment her observations. When a young geologist turns up in her observation 'spot' they develop a relationship. A veteran of the Vietnam War and a hippie, he opens up new worlds of possibility to Meridian. An interesting exploration of women's lives at this time in history, most of whom had little choice but to sacrifice their own ambitions for those of their husband. Love the cover and the chapter headings which are nouns for groups of birds and include their definitions. ( )
  DebbieMcCauley | Jun 2, 2017 |
I wanted to love this book, and at times I did and at other times I didn't. Loved the birds at the beginning of each chapter and the female relationships. Felt some of the male relationships were written too simplistically. Loved the insight into the development of the atomic weapons- interesting. Overall, I'm glad I read it. ( )
  carolfoisset | May 25, 2017 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Summary: Meridian has been interested in science - especially birds - ever since she was a child, and although it was unusual an unusual for the 1940s, she heads to the University of Chicago to get her Ph.D. studying avian biology. Her plans get sidetracked, however, when she unexpectedly falls for one of her professors -- and he for her. During the war, Alden is recruited to work on a secret government project, and so newly-married Meridian must pack up her studies and her life and move out to the tiny town of Los Alamos, New Mexico. Although Meridian and Alden originally fell in love with each other's intellect as much as anything, once they're in New Mexico, Alden becomes increasingly absorbed in his project, which he cannot discuss with Meridian, and she becomes increasingly isolated and bored - the life of a typical housewife in Los Alamos doesn't offer much in the way of intellectual stimulation. After decades of burying her own interests and her own desires, Meridian meets Clay, a Vietnam veteran, who draws her out of the cocoon of her quotidian life. But can she reclaim everything she has given up? And what will that mean for the life she had chosen?

Review: I should have been predisposed to love this book. I mean, it's got birds, it's got a love story, it's got women in science, it's got Chicago (at least briefly), it's got a World War II connection -- all of which are things that I enjoy. And while I did like it well enough, I didn't love it quite as much as I was expecting to.

One thing that I did love more than I was expecting to was the language; Church has a beautiful flowing prose style and a way of writing about nature particularly that felt very evocative but also very honest. However, while I liked Meridian as a character, I was kind of "eh" on the story as a whole. Part of it is that the "can I reclaim the life I thought I'd given up for good" narrative isn't my favorite, but another part of it was that other than Meridian, I didn't really care for the other characters. Alden, especially, I couldn't stand. The story doesn't spend a lot of time on their love story in the beginning, and it doesn't make us fall in love with Alden nearly as fast as Meridian does. I suspect the intent was to give the impression that she falls for Alden largely because he's the first man to respect her intelligence (and to like her FOR her intelligence), but this logic ultimately falls flat for me, since Alden pretty quickly does a 180 into not respecting her intelligence at all, and treating her really pretty horribly, and the narrative hadn't provided me with enough of a compelling love story for me to understand why strong, smart, independent Meridian put up with so much bad treatment from him for so long. But, that said, because I liked Meridian (and her birds) so much, and because it was an interesting glimpse into a piece of our nation's history that I hadn't really thought about, I ultimately wound up enjoying this book. 4 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: It's got some similarities in tone to Barbara Kingsolver, and I think if you are a fan of contemporary/literary fiction and recent American history, you'll probably find something here to enjoy. ( )
  fyrefly98 | May 22, 2017 |
This novel has gotten a lot of high praise from readers whose opinions I trust, but it did absolutely nothing for me. About 1/4 through, I remarked that it seemed like chick lit--just another story about a young woman who marries an older man (her professor) and gives up her own dreams to support his. I hoped things would change as I got further into the book, but no. The husband got more selfish, the wife more passive but also more whiny, and then she enters into a clandestine affair with a hippie 20 years her junior. So the husband may work in Los Alamos and Meri (whose silly full name is Meridian) may have dreams of becoming an ornithologist, but that doesn't elevate it above standard chick lit fare. Oh, and there's a big statement supporting women in science stuck on at the end. Blech. I gave it two stars for the info about crow communities. ( )
3 vote Cariola | May 4, 2017 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
This book was so slow and dull for the first third, I was certain that I could tell the ending of the book. By the end, I was amazed by crows, unexpected sensuality and love. Highly recommended. ( )
  markatpie | Apr 11, 2017 |
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How have all those exquisite adaptations of one part of the organisation to another part, and to the conditions of life, and of one distinct organic being to another being, been perfected?
—Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species

Los Alamos is in a restricted airspace reservation covered by an Executive order, dated May 23, 1950. This airspace cannot be penetrated except by authority of the AEC [Atomic Energy Commission]. Historically permission has been refused except for the chartered [AEC flights of official visitors and project personnel].
—from the report of the Hearing before the Subcommittee on Communities of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, Congress of the United States, Eighty-Sixth Congress, First Session on Community Problems of Los Alamos, December 2, 1959
To Frances Salman Koenig,
this novel's strongest champion,
To my brother Alan A. Church,
for his steadfastness
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In early January of 2011, forty-five hundred red-winged blackbirds fell dead from the Arkansas skies.
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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.
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