I really loved this story of a brilliant woman navigating the needs of intellect, marriage, and the closed community of atomic scientists in the '40s. Her struggles are told with an even-handed passion and a love for the natural world. This is a wonderful addition to women's lit that transcends the originators with a balance and maturity that is admirable. Recommended By Kathi K., Powells.com
Synopses & Reviews
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.
"This exquisite debut is the beautifully written story of a woman who must negotiate the tricky terrain of love, responsibility, ambition and sacrifice. In her impeccable portrayal of a long marriage, Elizabeth Church weaves together the historical and the personal and shows the impossible choices women faced - and still face - between family and self." Tara Conklin, author of The House Girl
"Church's debut novel explores the relationship between sacrifice and love...Church's commentary on the American nuclear family, particularly the expectations placed on women, showcases iterations ranging from doting housewives and mothers who are content in their roles to the rebellious. Each sentence drives the plot further, exploring love's limits and its spoils. But it's Church's exploration of Meridian's role in her relationships that is the most gracefully executed feat of the novel. Meridian's voice is poignant, a mixture of poetry and observation...An elegant glimpse into the evolution of love and womanhood." Kirkus Reviews
"Church’s debut will likely strike a chord, especially with women who find that not much has changed in our patriarchal society since Meri’s time, and that Meri’s story might well be their own." Poornima Apte for Booklist
"Oh, what a incandescent debut! From the atomic bomb tests at Los Alamos to the Vietnam War protests to the fascinating lives of crows, Church follows one extraordinary woman, who is brave to enough to challenge the times, take defiant wing, and chart her own extraordinary flight path. So engrossing, I couldn’t wait to read another page, and so alive, I never wanted the story to end." Caroline Leavitt, New York Times Bestselling author of Is This Tomorrow and Pictures of You
In her sweeping debut novel, Elizabeth J. Church takes us from the World War II years in Chicago to the vast sun-parched canyons of New Mexico in the 1970s as we follow the journey of a driven, spirited young woman, Meridian Wallace, whose scientific ambitions are subverted by the expectations of her era.
In 1941, at seventeen years old, Meridian begins her ornithology studies at the University of Chicago. She is soon drawn to Alden Whetstone, a brilliant, complicated physics professor who opens her eyes to the fundamentals and poetry of his field, the beauty of motion, space and time, the delicate balance of force and energy that allows a bird to fly.
Entranced and in love, Meridian defers her own career path and follows Alden west to Los Alamos, where he is engaged in a secret government project (later known to be the atomic bomb). In married life, though, she feels lost and left behind. She channels her academic ambitions into studying a particular family of crows, whose free life and companionship are the very things that seem beyond her reach. There in her canyons, years later at the dawn of the 1970s, with counterculture youth filling the streets and protests against the war rupturing college campuses across the country, Meridian meets Clay, a young geologist and veteran of the Vietnam War, and together they seek ways to mend what the world has broken.
Exquisitely capturing the claustrophobic eras of 1940s and 1950s America, The Atomic Weight of Love also examines the changing roles of women during the decades that followed. And in Meridian Wallace we find an unforgettable heroine whose metamorphosis shows how the women's movement opened up the world for a whole generation.
About the Author
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.
Elizabeth J. Church on PowellsBooks.Blog
My novel, The Atomic Weight of Love
, takes place in Los Alamos, New Mexico, where I grew up as the daughter of a research chemist and a biologist. My father was one of the scientists who created the first atomic bomb, and my home — my entire environment — was steeped in science...