Saturday, May 7, 2016

The Atomic Weight of Love

Title:  The Atomic Weight of Love
Author:  Elizabeth J. Church
Publication Information:  Algonquin Books. 2016. 320 pages.
ISBN:  1616204842 / 978-1616204846

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "In early January of 2011, forty-five hundred red-winged blackbirds fell dead from the Arkansas skies."

Favorite Quote:  "We have to take flight. It's not given to us, served up on a pretty, parsley-bordered platter. We have to take wing. Was I brave enough to do that? Or would I be content to remain earthbound?"

What is this book really about? The description identifies Meridian, a scientist who also happens to be a woman in the 1940s and beyond in the United States. Her field of study is ornithology - the study of crows in particular.  Hence, the beautiful cover of the book. The "atomic" in the title confuses me at first until I start reading and am introduced to the setting of Los Alamos, New Mexicos - the majestic canyons and also the government research center that led to the development of the atomic bomb.

This book is different from what I expect. I expect a story that, at least to some degree, is about the scientific world and the role of women in that scientific world at that time. This book is really not about that at all. It is about the role of women, the women's movements, but more from the expectations of marriage, housekeeping, and a male-dominated household. Meri's scientific pursuits dissolve into a housewife's hobby, as she walks away from the academic world for her husband's career in Los Alamos. Her life dissolves into that of an unhappy woman who stops just short of walking away.

Meridian describes herself in a poem -  "Take one Naive Girl. Bring to room temperature in the Big City. Add three cups Academia. If in one cup Encouragement. Fold in two drop Love. Sprinkle with one teaspoon Adoration. Mix thoroughly. Spoon carefully into greased Pan of Matrimony. Bake in Desert Heat for 25. Test doneness with Careless Toothpick. Let cool on Wire Rack of Inertia. Serve with generous dollops of Benign Neglect."

In other words, this book is the story of a marriage and a coming of age book about a young woman. Through the course of this story, the book also covers a lot of historical ground. The atomic bomb. The woman's movement. Vietnam. Hippie communes. Free love with some unfortunately graphic descriptions. Casual drug use. Veterans. War protests. Even the invention of the slow cooker. (As an aside, no husband should ever ever buy their wife a slow cooker as a gift. I am a kitchen gadget person, but no. Just no.)

The book does not really develop the history; it merely serves as a backdrop for the story. Similarly, the book references birds and bird behavior throughout. Each chapter begins with a couple of facts, and Meri's story intertwines with that of the crows she observes. Again, the birds are perhaps a metaphor for Meri's own life, but they become again part of the backdrop.

I am torn about this book. Parts of it I find moving and absorbing, and I find myself cheering for Meri. Meri's friendships, her marriage at times, and her search for something more ring true to life and make the characters believable. I don't agree with many of Meri's choices, but I do find myself understanding them. Unfortunately, other parts of the book descend in cliched stereotypes (think stereotyped hippies), and I find myself cringing. As an end result, my overall reaction ends up somewhere in the middle - not bad but there's something missing.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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