What would you do if you were asked to give up all of your hopes and dreams to support your significant other in achieving theirs? Would resentment build up or would the major sacrifice feel more like a gift, a selfless offering? In The Atomic Weight of Love, 17-year-old Meridian Wallace faces these very questions after falling in love with Alden Whetstone, a professor 20 years her senior, who is soon recruited for a top-secret project across the country.
Elizabeth J. Church’s debut novel follows the story of a brilliant, bird-loving girl who is faced with the most difficult choice of her life. She can either stay in school and pursue her dream of deciphering the secret language of crows or obediently follow her new husband to the remote deserts of Los Alamos, New Mexico. While the story is fictional, it is the story of every family affected by the Manhattan Project, including my own.
My grandfather was a chemical engineer who supported research and development at the Chicago Met Lab, 300 Area at Hanford and Los Alamos. My grandmother left behind her career as a concert pianist to stand beside her husband as he worked to extract plutonium from irradiated uranium behind tightly closed doors. Though I never met my grandfather, my late grandmother was full of stories. Despite the marriage between two well-to-do and independently successful individuals, my grandmother was denied credit card after credit because she couldn’t answer the simple question, “What does your husband do?” Days after the bomb dropped, my grandmother received a letter from her husband–for the first time without redaction–declaring, “My dear wife, we’ve done it!” and “The war is finally drawing to an end.”
Throughout Church’s book, I could not help but be transported by to my grandparents’ story and wondering about the similarities and differences between this fictionalized experience and their own. Hundreds were involved in the project, and thousands of family members were left in the dark, inevitably overwhelmed by emotional weight of sacrifices and uncertainty.
I appreciate how the story unfolds in a slow and deliberate manner, mirroring the intellectual thought process of the protagonist. I enjoyed how honest the characters were and how, even on the night of their marriage, Meri observes that a man who folds his pants deliberately before intimacy is sure to apply that cautiousness to all areas of life–for better of for worse.
Meridian’s resentment oscillates across the marriage as she tries to find peace with her stymied dreams and unhappy marriage. Despite attempts to bring some semblance of joy into a passionless partnership, her efforts are near-fruitless as her well-intentioned, yet stubborn, husband is perfectly content ignoring her.
The book offers great insight into what life was like between 1940 and the 1970’s, brilliantly capturing the changing views of life, love and respect across the seemingly short period of time, as well as the response of men and women to those changes. In her middle-age, Meri meets a Vietnam veteran while out bird-watching. Twenty years her junior, the passion-filled geology student brings Meridian back life and encourages her to pursue her dream of becoming an ornithologist. The sweet taste of freedom and equality she experiences with Clay stands in sharp contrast to her relationship with Alden, and she’s faced with yet another difficult decision.
Across four shared decades, Meridian and Alden faces challenge after challenge; while some momentarily draw the couple’s orbits into closer alignment, the arguments often highlight their differences and carving ever-deeper into the canyon between them. The raw emotions ran deep and the clarity of each character’s motivation quickly became clear, giving the reader reason to cheer on, fall in love with and despise the different players. In the end, Meridian finds her wings and finally takes flight, but perhaps not in the way that anyone–even she, herself–had expected.
I could not put this book down. My heart broke over and over as Alden took his brilliant young wife for granted and everyone around Meridian urged her to settle and be grateful for what she already had. The Atomic Weight of Love is far from a heartwarming love story, but the realness of it sat heavy on my chest and demanded that I keep on reading. The book brought me to tears many times and left me emotionally exhausted by the end, but I thoroughly enjoyed it nonetheless.