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The Atomic Weight of Love


The Atomic Weight of Love

In 1941, a bright and spirited young woman named Meridian Wallace begins her studies in ornithology at the University of Chicago. Her whole life is ahead of her, and her plans for it include intense study at college, to be followed by a graduate degree focusing on the study of crows --- her life’s passion.

When Meridian first meets Professor Alden Whetstone, he is lecturing a class she just happens to audit that day, and she is immediately entranced by his scientific description of flight: “Flight requires defiance of gravity and is really, when you think about it, a bold act.” This man understands her love of birds like no other, and what could she do but be utterly captivated by this much older man --- 40 to her 17 years. Even though she is dating Jerry, a fellow student who seems to be a more appropriate choice, Meridian can’t help pining for Alden. After a few more lectures, several private meetings and dinners, it appears he is as smitten with her as she is with him. He is as enraptured with his work in physics as she is with her study of birds. 

"In the tradition of THE PARIS WIFE and LOVING FRANK, Elizabeth J. Church’s absorbing debut novel shows the loneliness and pain that exists for the woman behind the famous man."

Throwing caution to the wind, Alden and Meridian decide to marry. The reason for the urgency is Alden’s new job that awaits him in New Mexico. He’s been selected for a coveted position as one of the lead scientists in a top-secret government research project in Los Alamos, New Mexico. (Meridian later learns that the result of this project is the atomic bomb.) For a time, the newlyweds live separately while Alden continues his work and Meridian can finish her undergraduate degree. Given the war, this wasn’t such an unusual living situation; many women lived with family or friends while their husbands were fighting overseas. But once college is over, Meridian realizes that Alden cannot leave his work in Los Alamos, so her dreams of graduate school at Cornell are put on hold.

Visiting with her mother shortly after her wedding, Meridian hopes “to be as happy as you and Daddy were.” Her mother advises her not to have “unrealistic expectations.” But her enthusiasm for her husband and their bright future knows no bounds: “I want mountain peaks, Mother. I want joy. Elation.” To which her mother knowingly replies: “Well, sweetie, temper that enthusiasm with a little reality, that’s all I’m saying.” Undeterred, Meridian continues to dream of a bright future that includes her accepting prestigious prizes for her work with crows, with her supportive husband by her side.

After graduation, Meridian journeys to New Mexico to begin her married life with Alden. The climate and terrain of Los Alamos proves a not-unwelcome shift from the frigid Chicago winters. She decides to dive into her new life by opening “all of my pores to what New Mexico had to offer.” But finding her place in this strange new landscape proves more difficult than she could have imagined. Alden’s work has him preoccupied and remote, but he promises the results will be worth it. He can’t talk about exactly what he’s doing but assures Meridian that its importance is unparalleled: “It also has the power to end life as we know it. It will change the world.” So she soldiers on, attempting to keep up with her own scientific reading and studies of the local crow life around her.

But after a painful and unexpected miscarriage sends her to the hospital for several days, Meridian begins to realize that her brilliant scientist husband lacks empathy and understanding for her. His needs and desires will always come first. This stopgap in her education is more than that. Alden has no intention of moving east so that she can get her graduate degree. This is the late 1940s, early 1950s. Couples don’t compromise; wives do. And Meridian can’t help but wonder if it will always be like this.

In the tradition of THE PARIS WIFE and LOVING FRANK, Elizabeth J. Church’s absorbing debut novel shows the loneliness and pain that exists for the woman behind the famous man. Although Alden’s work was not well known until much later, Meridian’s own dreams and desires came second to her prominent husband’s. Through the author’s knowledgeable prose (she was born and raised in Los Alamos, and her father was a research chemist who worked on the Manhattan Project, although this is not her parents’ story), we experience a pivotal moment in history --- not only our country’s, but that moment between men and women, when the first inklings of women’s dissatisfaction at their limited prospects first started to show themselves. We see it all through the prism of Meridian Wallace Whetstone, a woman ahead of her time.

Reviewed by Bronwyn Miller on May 27, 2016

The Atomic Weight of Love
by Elizabeth J. Church