Apparently I really do judge books by their covers; just like with Huxley’s Island, it was the spectacularly gorgeous cover art that initially drew me to Elizabeth Church’s The Atomic Weight of Love. I mean, this cover is so stunningly beautiful—I love the outline of a periodic table, populated with Audubon bird prints instead of elements. The title font. The slightly askew image. The “aged” paper. Perfection:
This is a debut novel, but I think I’d venture to say that it’s one of my favorites—I already want to sit down and read it again! Of course, there are too many other books to read for the first time, but I hope to re-visit this one someday! Perhaps if I can convince my book club to read it, that would give me a good excuse…! This really would be a fantastic book club book; it’s a pretty quick read with plenty of topics to discuss.
The Atomic Weight of Love is the story of Meridian Wallace, who abandons her plans to study birds in graduate school to marry a (fictional) physicist working on the atomic bomb at Los Alamos. The prologue ends:
“this is not the story of the creation of the atomic bomb, or of Los Alamos, the birthplace of the bomb…this is my story, the story of a woman who accompanied the bomb’s birth and tried to fly in its aftermath.”
In my opinion, this book is historical fiction at its best: character-driven, yet giving the reader (what feels like) a realistic glimpse into a time and place. In this case, the book actually spans decades, mostly taking place in the 1940s, ‘50s, ‘60s, and ’70s. It’s definitely not a “war book,” but a “life book” that shows how the everyday lives of ordinary people are simultaneously altered dramatically and go on as usual, even in challenging times. And then, how time slips past, with individual aspirations and world-shaking events, alike, fading into memory and history.
It’s written almost as a memoir, with a prologue and final chapter from the perspective of Meri at age 87. The first chapter begins when she is a child, and the last chapter (before the one that functions as an epilogue) ends with her at 51. In between, the story progresses linearly, with Meri leading the reader through the pivotal events in her life. I thought the writing was superb. And, since Meri is an academic and a highly introspective naturalist, the writing style and voice felt authentic, as if, yes, this character really would have spoken and written with this level of detail and imagery. The writing flows effortlessly between dialogue, description, and Meridian’s thoughts.
Although historical fiction, reading this book now, when rallies and marches for women, and for science, and for equality, and for the environment, are still necessary, was powerful. The characters are fictionalized, but the scenario is true: there was a time—not so many decades ago—when even highly educated women, with PhDs, were expected to defer to their husbands’ careers, even if it meant completely sacrificing their own to become housewives. Meri balks against these societal expectations, but she still doesn’t know how to remove herself from them. As a woman who completed a PhD in science, yet who is not perusing a career in academia, this glimpse into history gave me a lot to think about. More than anything, reading Meridian’s story made me grateful for the years I spent with the birds, completing my PhD, but equally grateful that I’m able to make career and life decisions that are right for me—without the sort of societal pressures and expectations that existed in the ‘40s and ‘50s. I think it’s important to realize that we have come a long way, even if it there is still so very much farther to go.
The Atomic Weight of Love is also a love story, although not an easy one. Without giving away any events of the story, I’ll say that it could spark plenty of conversation as to what it means to love and be loved, and to be in a relationship or marriage. To where the line exists between compromise and sacrifice. To the balance of prioritizing self versus partner. Of how people can love each other, but not understand each other. Love each other, and not be able to be together. It’s a love story that simultaneously feels slightly contrived, and completely real. I may not have agreed with all of Meri’s actions, but I smiled, laughed, and cried along with her, and cheered for her throughout.
Now—for the truly good stuff 🙂 I am confident that I would have enjoyed the book nearly as much if the main character had been a chemist, or a botanist, or a geologist. But, she wasn’t—she was an ornithologist. And, yes, I’m unabashedly a bit biased, but the bird-nerdy-ness in this book was pretty phenomenal 🙂
To begin with, every chapter is titled with the collective noun for a type of bird:
A Parliament of Owls — A Watch of Nightingales — A Party of Jays — A Tidings of Magpies
A Descent of Woodpeckers — A Charm of Hummingbirds — A Murmuration of Starlings
A Pod of Meadowlarks — A Kettle of Hawks — An Exaltation of Larks — A Deceit of Lapwings
An Unkindness of Ravens — A Murder of Crows — A Fall of Woodcocks — A Flight of Sparrows
Each chapter heading also includes two tidbits about the type of bird featured. The first gives a factoid or two regarding the species’ natural history—something about its appearance, song, or an interesting behavior. The second relates to the species’ place in human culture—perhaps a reference to folklore, etymology, or mythology. These didn’t relate to the story per se, but it lent the flavor of actually being pulled from Meri’s personal notebooks, where she might jot down random bits that piqued her interest.
Without being too literal, the collective nouns themselves follow the arc of the story. Yes, this means that the novel builds slowly, comes to a pivot toward the end, with the Unkindness of Ravens and the Murder of Crows, and then wraps up relatively quickly…I wouldn’t have minded following Meridian a little longer (I loved her as a protagonist!), but I was also satisfied with the arc of the story and how it ended.
Apart from the diverse chapter headings, the primary birds to feature in the story are crows, because that is the species Meridian chooses to study for her research. More than a topic of study, the crows become Meridian’s anchor in New Mexico, and, to an extent, also mirror her personal story.
“It was a dreary setting, one that failed to inspire. But then the crows came: a benediction. First one or two, and then in increasing numbers, swooping to land on fence posts or rooftops, setting up gruff choruses in the bare branches of trees. Clustering on the edges of trash barrels, their entire bodies bending and stretching with each vocalization. Stridently pacing across the frozen ground, tilting their heads to look up, then down, their eyes alive with curiosity. I rolled down my window and was greeted with their croaks in bursts of three to four serial calls. They told me I would be all right in Los Alamos. They told me they would protect me, keep me company, that they had not deserted me any more than I had deserted them.” (85)
I liked that crows were Meri’s species of choice. Crows are abundant highly social, and are, by far, among the most intelligent bird species in North America. But I also smiled at the portrayal of a species that is so often vilified (large, black, noisy, etc), as, instead, welcoming and comforting. Meri spends a lot of time in the canyons, observing the resident crows and taking detailed notes on their behavior. There is a fair amount of reference to crow natural history, particularly regarding social relationships. For the most part, the birds in the book aren’t metaphorical. They are real birds that Meridian watches, talks about, thinks about. Sometimes, though, the conversations or musings are of a metaphorical nature:
“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?”
Even if we look only at the United States, the examples are many and poignant: National Independence; the slow end to slavery; women’s suffrage; civil rights, etc, etc. Neither personal happiness nor social change come about passively. We have to be brave enough to take flight.