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Oh Pure and Radiant Heart Hardcover – June, 2005

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. What if Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi and Leo Szilard, the primary physicists from the Manhattan Project, returned to contemporary America to survey their atomic legacy? That question forms the heart of Millet's excellent fourth novel, in which the souls of the three take earthly form in the present-day Southwest. Ann, a New Mexico librarian, spots the reincarnated Oppenheimer and Fermi at a restaurant near her home; Szilard soon joins them; Ann persuades her garden-designer husband, Ben, to take them all in. Subsequent trips to Los Alamos and (with the help of a rich UFOlogist) Japan to view the monuments at Hiroshima persuade the three to work for disarmament. Army surveillance ensues; at one rally, shots are fired; and Christian Fundamentalists try to take things in a more rapturous direction. It takes considerable talent to pull off a conceit like this, and for the most part Millet makes it look easy, drawing full-blown, dead-on portraits of the three scientists that don't diminish their characters or their work. Her threads on weapons buildup, the topsy-turvy mosaic of contemporary American political culture and the difficulties of marriage feel realistically motivated and nicely argued. Millet gives a whimsical conceit real depth, and the result, if a bit pious in spots, is a superb, memorable novel. (July)
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From The New Yorker

In Millet's surreal fifth novel, three physicists—Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi, and Leo Szilard—are transported from their posts during the Second World War to the year 2003. After overcoming the usual time-travel quandaries—shock at children shouting expletives, unfamiliarity with power steering—the trio, being geniuses, quickly adapt. Szilard starts quoting rap lyrics. In penitence for their contributions to the creation of the atomic bomb, they set off on a mission to promote world peace, only to have their message hijacked by religious fanatics who believe that Oppenheimer is a herald of the Second Coming. The scientists want to stop nuclear proliferation, but it's the proliferation of stereotypes—relentlessly chipper New Agers, soulless Wall Street executives, militant evangelicals—that sabotages the author's attempt at lyrical transcendence.
Copyright © 2005 The New Yorker

"The Evening Chorus" by Helen Humphreys
From a writer of delicate and incandescent prose, "The Evening Chorus" offers a beautiful, spare examination of the natural world and the human heart. See more

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 506 pages
  • Publisher: Soft Skull Press; First Edition edition (June 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1932360859
  • ISBN-13: 978-1932360851
  • Product Dimensions: 1.2 x 6.2 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (29 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,428,308 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Lydia Millet is a novelist and short-story writer known for her dark humor, idiosyncratic characters and language, and strong interest in the relationship between humans and other animals. Born in Boston, she grew up in Toronto and now lives outside Tucson, Arizona with her two children, where she writes and works in wildlife conservation. Sometimes called a "novelist of ideas," Millet won the PEN-USA award for fiction for her early novel My Happy Life (2002); in 2010, her story collection Love in Infant Monkeys was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. In 2008, 2011, and 2012 she published three novels in a critically acclaimed series about extinction and personal loss: How the Dead Dream, Ghost Lights, and Magnificence. June 2014 will see the publication of her first book for young-adult readers, Pills and Starships -- an apocalyptic tale of death contracts and climate change set in the ruins of Hawaii.

Customer Reviews

Millet is a brilliant, beautiful writer.
Deirdre Stoelzle
Character development is weak, and the characters are fairly flat.
T. Wason
I really dreaded the moment when the book would end.

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

17 of 18 people found the following review helpful By frumiousb VINE VOICE on March 24, 2007
Format: Paperback
I read about Oh Pure and Radiant Heart in a blog that is on my regular reading list. The blog writer was more enthusiastic about this book than I have ever heard him be about any other book he discussed. On that basis, I thought it was worth giving it a try.

I *loved* the book for the first 150 pages. I could not believe how much I loved the writing, and how connected I felt to the characters. It is really magical how Millet is able to make the surreal situation so very real. I really dreaded the moment when the book would end.

Be careful what you wish for, right? The second half of the book is unfortunately nowhere near as compelling as the first. It had a little bit the feel of a book where the author had painted herself into the corner. It felt as though Millet did not really know where to go with the wonderful premise that she had imagined. I may be wrong about that, but I can at least say that as a reader it was very difficult to hold on to the thread. I cannot help but wonder if a little bit more help from an editor would have prevented the problem.

In any case, Millet is hugely impressive as a writer. I certainly will not be giving up on her work. Recommended (with my caveats above) for fans of smart speculative fiction. If you like a lyrical tone to your prose, Millet should appeal to your taste.
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29 of 34 people found the following review helpful By Candace Siegle, Greedy Reader on July 1, 2005
Format: Hardcover
In this marvelous book, a Santa Fe librarian named Ann has strange dreams about J. Robert Oppenheimer, the so-called "father of the atomic bomb." She thinks of it another sign of her disrupted sleep patterns, but this is before an armed man comes into the library and begins shooting it up. Before he is killed by one of his own ricocheting bullets, he tells Ann that "the old ones are coming."

Shaken, Ann goes to a friend's restaurant for a drink. Next to her at the bar is a man reading a biography of Oppenheimer who looks just like the Oppenheimer in her dream. He is joined by an elfin man speaking Italian. They talk about what will happen to them in the future. The Italian, now speaking accented English, will die in 1954. The tall, skinny Oppenheimer-type, will live until 1967, and they will both die of cancer. They joke about this uneasily, and then leave.

They are not alone. In author Lydia Millet's vision, both Oppenheimer and the Italian physicist Enrico Fermi disappeared from the Trinity nuclear testing site at the moment the test bomb went off, and reappeared in Santa Fe on March 1, 2003. In Chicago, a fat rude dynamo named Leo Szilard awakes under a table in the undergrad dining room at the University of Chicago at the same moment. Szilard and his buddy Albert Einstein had written a letter to President Roosevelt in 1939 warning him about German research into an atomic weapon, thus starting the race for the bomb. Szilard, as brilliant as he is exasperating, puts two and two together faster than the other physicists and hops a bus for New Mexico; the train is too expensive for his 1945 dollars.
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15 of 16 people found the following review helpful By Deirdre Stoelzle on October 20, 2005
Format: Hardcover
After reading Lydia Millet's latest book, "Oh Pure and Radiant Heart," I bought all her books. In a week I devoured "George Bush, Dark Prince of Love" and "Everyone's Pretty." Sadly, I have just finished "My Happy Life" and am down to the last, "Omnivores." I admit I am obsessed with Millet's writing: It is exquisite, flowing, the subject matter jarring, disturbing, crazy-ass weird and captivating. I haven't been this enthralled with a writer since I discovered Vonnegut as a teenager(before that, of course, there was Judy Blume and, I'm sort of embarrassed to say, V.C. Andrews). Millet is a brilliant, beautiful writer. I am so grateful for her work and can't wait for her next feat.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Mary J. Oliver on August 1, 2005
Format: Hardcover
I was looking forward to reading this book, and actually started it on the 60th anniversary of the Trinity test. I agree with other reviewers that Lydia Millet can write with grace, humor and insight. In fact, I was carried away with the beauty of her writing in the first half of the book, but it wasn't enough for me to enjoy the time travel fantasy she created for Oppenheimer, Szilard and Fermi. Although she was very perceptive about the media frenzy of our times and the polarization of American values, I believe the impact of nuclear weapons, the ambiguity experienced by many of the Manhattan Project scientists and the changes wrought by The Bomb were trivialized by the end of the book. Maybe I missed the point of this novel since others have regarded it highly. However, the tone of the book rubbed me the wrong way and I thought it overly long.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Bob J. Baker on August 29, 2009
Format: Hardcover
Oh Pure and Radiant Heart
by Lydia Millet

Interspersed with Ben & Ann's personal story is Ann's contemporary 21st Century caregiving to 3 mysteriously arrived 1945 nuclear scientists are powerful factoid clips regarding the horror et al of the use of nuclear weapons & the after effects of tests at Bikini, in Nevada, at Almagordo. These are powerful & ugly reminders of what we have done as a country.

But it is a rather discontinuous sort of book, one of the sort that one has frequently to turn back a page to make sure one has not been passed over unintentionally. The narrative is often like log book entries. Or like card file notes that haven't been integrated into a cogent theme. Stream of consciousness-like & very bumpy.

Textual breaks are helpfully marked with a wingding; quotations marks are nowhere, with the em dash indicating the beginning of a speaker's words. Not bad ideas for this piecemeal style. As these cuts are shown perhaps Millet was hoping for a movie. It would make a good one, with the usual Hollywood alterations. It has fantasy & a cast of characters that includes Oppenheimer, Szilard & Fermi, as well as assorted Jesus freaks, rich former hippies, junkies, feds & government spooks, it suits the screen (but would not please anyone wearing "establishment" colors).

The powerful & bitter medicinal truth about the atomic weapons & related industries needs to be taken, but the honey is missing from this very long (532 pp), many mouthsful of a book. Yet the persistent reader will be relieved at the end, which rises to something like a consistent & nicely written philosophy, even though not one that seems to value mundane life or secular meaning, but rather seems to offer an existentialist anomie.
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