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. When we hiked or picnicked in nearby Bandelier National Monument, my mother would quiz my brothers and me on plant identification and animal behaviors. My father required that I keep a cash book, noting income and expenditures with precise, error-free math, beginning at age six. I had to include entries for pennies I found on the playground, and before I would be handed my 25-cent allowance (10 cents of which had to go in the church offering), he would be sure my wallet’s contents matched the figures in my cash book. One could describe expectations as “high.”
I was a competitive swimmer, and when I was in high school, one of the jobs I landed was teaching adult swimming lessons. Many of my pupils were uneasy scientists, and I was delighted when I realized I could use a bit of Newtonian physics to help them learn. I demonstrated the crawl stroke, chanting: “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” Their faces would light up with understanding, and they quickly realized how to adjust hand positions so as to push more water backwards, propelling themselves forward.
I swore I would not die as he had, with enormous regrets pinning me to the bedsheets of my deathbed.
As I grew into adulthood, I couldn’t help but apply those same laws of physics to human behavior. There were those whirligig people — never at rest, seemingly incapable of quiet contemplation. An object in motion tends to remain in motion.
Ultimately more interesting to me, however, were those many people who had stalled — in their marriages, their careers, in pursuit of their most closely held dreams. An object at rest tends to remain at rest.
Inertia. What, I wondered, would it take to move someone off of a particular square on the chessboard? To motivate? To create change? And what would it take to move me
In my 50s, I learned what would at last propel me toward my long-held dream of creating a life as a writer, as opposed to a misbegotten attorney. For me, the supreme, not-to-be-ignored motivator was my husband’s untimely death. I knew that I had to make his death hold some meaning other than misery, pain, and waste. I swore I would not die as he had, with enormous regrets pinning me to the bedsheets of my deathbed. And so, I took the steps necessary to alter my life so that I could write. I allowed myself no excuses, and I chose to write my first novel about inertia, about adaptation that crossed into the territory of self-abnegation and martyrdom.
Meridian, the protagonist of The Atomic Weight of Love
, is an undergraduate student at the University of Chicago when she falls in love with her brilliant physics professor, Alden Whetstone. Meridian is 20 years Alden’s junior, but she is transfixed by his intense intellect, by the challenge his mind provides for her own keen mind. She ultimately marries Alden and follows him to Los Alamos, where he has gone with other leading scientists to work in secret on the Manhattan Project.
At first, Meridian eagerly adapts — to the wild landscape of northern New Mexico, to a temporary delay in her long-held plan to obtain a PhD and become an ornithologist. But time passes, hurdles inevitably arise, and Meridian’s dreams are consistently thwarted. The time’s cultural expectations of women’s roles combine with Meridian’s definition of love to lead her to believe that she must put herself second and accede to her husband’s demands. She stops trying to delay admission to the graduate school where she’s been accepted and instead attempts to pursue her passion for birds by creating her own, muted version of a scientific study of a colony of crows that inhabits a Los Alamos canyon. Alden withdraws further and further into his world of theoretical physics, and he is dismissive of her desire to do and be more as a woman; his solution is that she find fulfillment in children.
In writing about Meridian’s version of stalled dreams, I made a conscious decision to strip her, one by one, of supports, excuses, and distractions — whatever might “justify” her failure to stand up for herself, to know that her dreams were as valid as those of her husband. I took away every source of comfort. I was relentless, and yet Meridian refused to move, to give her dream anything more than lip service.
Finally, I gave her love. I gave her Clay, a Vietnam War veteran 20 years her junior, a man who would challenge her and who was capable of infusing her with a new perspective. Meridian listens to Clay, who gives her books to read and asks her questions she doesn’t particularly want to hear or answer. He is her catalyst.
What Meridian does in response to the catalyst that is Clay is at the heart of the story. A consideration of what any of us choose to do in the face of inertia, of obstacles to fulfillment of our dreams, is what I hope readers take with them. I hope that my novel inspires readers to look at where their own lives might be stalled. What excuses do we use to make our own versions of inertia palatable? Do we use our relationships to avoid the risks inherent in chasing our dreams? Where is compromise appropriate, and where is it non-negotiable? When are we being “selfish,” and when are we appropriately asserting, protecting ourselves? What does love demand in terms of sacrifice? What should
love demand in terms of sacrifice? Who decides? And how much time do we truly have at our disposal before reflexive, unconscious choices exact an irredeemable toll?
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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.