The Atomic Weight of Love
Elizabeth J. Church
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Buy *The Atomic Weight of Love* by Elizabeth J. Churchonline

The Atomic Weight of Love
Elizabeth J. Church
Algonquin Books
352 pages
May 2016
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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Exploring the geometry of desire, Church’s melodrama features ornithologist Meridian (Meri) Wallace studying in Chicago, indulging in a daily fantasy of getting together with quintessential absent-minded professor Alden Whetstone. Older than Meri and eccentric with his wild, tousled hair, Alden can explain scientific mysteries to Meri, deciphering the great Isaac Newton and other scientists. That Meri has a daddy complex comes as no surprise: she misses her father, who died of a massive heart attack at forty-three (“this was the first time in my life my heart crumpled and caved in on itself”). It was Meri’s father who also inspired her to learn and acknowledge the value of education.

In the spring of 1942, Meri’s fantasies are small comfort for a woman thrust into the cloistered academia of high expectations, a standard set by Alden, who looks at his new muse with all the subjectivity of a scientific experiment. Perhaps a little too blind to the potential consequences of marrying him, Meri comforts herself knowing that she’s with an extremely talented, driven man who ignores social connection and is twenty years her senior. Meri even finds herself longing to soar in the realm of Alden‘s “pure ideas,” to enjoy the complete and total academic isolation a life with him seems to offer.

Through Meri’s dominant first-person voice, Church offers a fascinating perspective on the war years, the development of the atomic bomb, and the status of highly educated women like Meri, suffocated by their second-class status as dutiful housewives marching to their husbands' tunes. Fired up by the practical applications of his hard-earned knowledge, Alden leaves his university position to participate in the war effort. From the start, Meri knows little about Alden’s work--only that he’s working with other scientists on some secret “hush hush project.” Sad at being left out and angry at the delay that this secret war assignment means to their life together, ever-dutiful Meri eventually follows Alden to Los Alamos.

As Meri plunges into her new life in New Mexico, a place of dust and of great beauty, her existence becomes a dreamy example of a heightened reality. With Alden distracted by his work (a subject considered so top-secret it is never fully discussed), all Meri sees is a harsh and unforgiving place. Meri comes to acknowledge what a huge adjustment this wartime secrecy must be for an academic like Alden: “I honored his sacrifice, yet I was determined to focus on something other than the leviathan secret weighing on our marriage and our intimacy.”

Amid the rumbling monsters shot full of thunder, Meri opens all her pores to what New Mexico has to offer. Setting off on an adventure of her own, Meri finds much to learn in the landscape’s nature, history, and culture and the vastness of the canyons that surround Los Alamos. At first she thinks that domestication suites her fine, but after about two months, Meri realizes that her life with Alden has become her punishment, “this stymied life.” Marooned and shut out from Alden’s work, lacking financial independence, Meri seeks solace in observing her beloved crows and keeping journals of their movements.

The catalyst for change is geologist Clay, a quasi-hippie who has recently returned battle-scarred from Vietnam. While Alden’s breathtaking intellect constantly pulls Meri back to him, the forceful pull of her attraction to handsome Clay makes her heart quicken to the point of dizziness. Because Meri is the more experienced, she has a somewhat greater complexity than Clay. This adult yearning for him, and for something greater than her marriage, drives her into Clay’s arms again and again: "I’d never suspected myself to be a hussy, the kind of woman who would betray her husband.” Church beautifully depicts Meri’s conflict, this constant push and pull of her mysterious attraction to Clay and her rapidly deflating marriage to Alden. Moving from the post-war years into the turbulent Vietnam era of the Sixties and on to the free-love era of the Seventies, Church presents the peaks and valleys of Meri’s life, her constant frustration at being unable to follow her dreams, though her best friend, Belle, always sympathizes with her plight.

While there’s a tendency to overdo the bird symbolism (the crows migratory patterns represent how people pull together and split apart), Church shows how Meri is forever changed by Clay’s passionate love and by Alden’s unquestioning loyalty. Clearly a man of his time, Alden is frustrated with Meri as she strives for independence. On the other hand, Clay is the catalyst for all Meri’s urgent and unseen connections, connections that will come to represent the atomic weight of history and of love.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Michael Leonard, 2016

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