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Elizabeth J. Church – The Atomic Weight of Love

May 22, 2017

LibraryThing Early Reviewers18. The Atomic Weight of Love by Elizabeth J. Church (2016)

Length: 320 pages
Genre: Historical Fiction (although it’s relatively recent history)

Started: 08 May 2016
Finished: 17 May 2016 (so I’m juuuuuust over a year behind on reviews. Whoops.)

Where did it come from? LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Why do I have it? Are we kidding? There are birds on the cover! (See also: Snapper.)
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 14 April 2016.

Studying birds is
great, but it can’t make up for
an absentee spouse.

Summary: Meridian has been interested in science – especially birds – ever since she was a child, and although it was unusual an unusual for the 1940s, she heads to the University of Chicago to get her Ph.D. studying avian biology. Her plans get sidetracked, however, when she unexpectedly falls for one of her professors — and he for her. During the war, Alden is recruited to work on a secret government project, and so newly-married Meridian must pack up her studies and her life and move out to the tiny town of Los Alamos, New Mexico. Although Meridian and Alden originally fell in love with each other’s intellect as much as anything, once they’re in New Mexico, Alden becomes increasingly absorbed in his project, which he cannot discuss with Meridian, and she becomes increasingly isolated and bored – the life of a typical housewife in Los Alamos doesn’t offer much in the way of intellectual stimulation. After decades of burying her own interests and her own desires, Meridian meets Clay, a Vietnam veteran, who draws her out of the cocoon of her quotidian life. But can she reclaim everything she has given up? And what will that mean for the life she had chosen?

Review: I should have been predisposed to love this book. I mean, it’s got birds, it’s got a love story, it’s got women in science, it’s got Chicago (at least briefly), it’s got a World War II connection — all of which are things that I enjoy. And while I did like it well enough, I didn’t love it quite as much as I was expecting to.

One thing that I did love more than I was expecting to was the language; Church has a beautiful flowing prose style and a way of writing about nature particularly that felt very evocative but also very honest.

It was thrilling to hold in my heavily gloved hands a newly banded juvenile Cooper’s hawk, to be in such close proximity to a creature so wholly wild, so perfectly free. His distress call distressed me – a rapid-fire bikbikbikbikbikbikbikbikbik, silence for a beat or two, and then repetition: bikbikbikbikbikbikbikbikbik. Professor Matthews taught me how to hold the raptor by its legs, raise it above my head, and simply let go. Just before letting go, though, I watched the bird’s eyes, vigilant, rapidly flicking to the left, right, above: the short, fine facial feathers lifted by a breeze. Once released, how quickly the bird recovered, immediately executed several powerful wing flaps, and spirited itself away. I was humbled by the thought that our lives, however briefly, had touched. –p. 44

I huddled in a blanket on the back patio and watched dollops of sparrows scurrying beneath my feeders. The slightest thing sent them racing for cover in the bushes. It was amazing that they managed to consume any food, as skittish as they were. They were flighty – a word used so frequently to describe women.

Actually, I thought, the small birds’ behavior made perfect sense – they were so low in the pecking order, so vulnerable. Their predators were bountiful, between the roadrunners, crows, raptors, dogs, and cats. The entirety of a sparrow’s world was peopled with threats. Of course women are flighty, I thought. We have more predators than men; we have to operate constantly with greater wariness. — p. 264

However, while I liked Meridian as a character, I was kind of “eh” on the story as a whole. Part of it is that the “can I reclaim the life I thought I’d given up for good” narrative isn’t my favorite, but another part of it was that other than Meridian, I didn’t really care for the other characters. Alden, especially, I couldn’t stand. The story doesn’t spend a lot of time on their love story in the beginning, and it doesn’t make us fall in love with Alden nearly as fast as Meridian does. I suspect the intent was to give the impression that she falls for Alden largely because he’s the first man to respect her intelligence (and to like her FOR her intelligence), but this logic ultimately falls flat for me, since Alden pretty quickly does a 180 into not respecting her intelligence at all, and treating her really pretty horribly, and the narrative hadn’t provided me with enough of a compelling love story for me to understand why strong, smart, independent Meridian put up with so much bad treatment from him for so long. But, that said, because I liked Meridian (and her birds) so much, and because it was an interesting glimpse into a piece of our nation’s history that I hadn’t really thought about, I ultimately wound up enjoying this book. 4 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: It’s got some similarities in tone to Barbara Kingsolver, and I think if you are a fan of contemporary/literary fiction and recent American history, you’ll probably find something here to enjoy.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Other Reviews: A Little Reading, Rhapsody in Books Weblog, and more at the Book Blogs Search Engine.
Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

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

Vocab: (see the whole list)

  • p. 56 “I didn’t want to be one of the other fungible wives; I wanted my own life, my own experiences without the prejudice of someone else’s likes or dislikes.” – Interchangeable.
  • p. 123 “It was composed of concrete block in a pseudo-adobe style, with vigas, hardwood floors, a stuccoed exterior, and a single-car carport.” – A rafter or roofbeam, especially a trimmed and peeled tree trunk whose end projects from an outside adobe wall.
  • p. 300: “It was then that I saw the coiled rattlesnake just inches from his feet, lying in the shade of a chamisa.” – a deciduous shrub with silver-blue leaves and yellow flowers that bloom in autumn.

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