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The Atomic Weight of Love: A Novel Hardcover – May 3, 2016
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“Church's absorbing debut novel shows the loneliness and pain that exists for the woman behind the famous man . . . We see it all through the prism of Meridian Wallace Whetstone, a woman ahead of her time.” —Bookreporter.com
“Inspiring, empowering, and heartbreaking in turn.” —The Roanoke Times
“Church’s debut will likely strike a chord, especially with women who find that not much has changed in our patriarchal society since Meri’s time, and that Meri’s story might well be their own.” —Booklist
“Church's debut novel explores the relationship between sacrifice and love . . . Each sentence drives the plot further, exploring love's limits and its spoils. But it's Church's exploration of Meridian's role in her relationships that is the most gracefully executed feat of the novel. Meridian's voice is poignant, a mixture of poetry and observation . . . An elegant glimpse into the evolution of love and womanhood.” —Kirkus Reviews
“Church hits the mark in this emotionally driven debut that spans the chapters of a long life . . . What does love require of us? How does one strike a balance between compromise and self‑fulfillment? In her debut novel, Church writes to these issues in a style that is thoughtful and elegant.” —Library Journal
“Oh, what an incandescent debut! Church follows one extraordinary woman, who is brave to enough to challenge the times, take defiant wing, and chart her own extraordinary flight path. So engrossing, I couldn’t wait to read another page, and so alive, I never wanted the story to end.” —Caroline Leavitt, author of Is This Tomorrow and Pictures of You
“This exquisite debut is the beautifully written story of a woman who must negotiate the tricky terrain of love, responsibility, ambition and sacrifice. In her impeccable portrayal of a long marriage, Elizabeth Church weaves together the historical and the personal and shows the impossible choices women faced--and still face--between family and self.” —Tara Conklin, author of The House Girl
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The book picked up once the lover appeared on the scene, but at that point the plot started to feel cliched, with little new added to the "will she/won't she leave her husband" trope.
It wasn't a bad read - the writing is solid and even quite lovely in places, and Meri is basically a likable character. I just wanted so much more, based on what I read in the early pages.
Single Sentence Summary: The remarkable life story of a brilliant woman who falls victim to the expectations of the times she lives in, while still searching for her role in the world as it changes.
Primary Characters: Meridian Wallace – a woman of science from the time she was a child. Meridian is both ahead of her time and trapped inside of it. Alden Whetstone – the very accomplished physics professor that Meridian marries. He is 20 years older than she is. Clay – a much younger man and a Vietnam veteran who Meridian meets in her forties.
Synopsis: Growing up in a small Pennsylvania town, Meridian Wallace was ten when she was given her first book about birds. At eleven it was Darwin’s Origin of the Species. She was a woman who reveled in science, and especially ornithology. At 17, in 1941, Meridian set off for the University of Chicago where she was a gifted student, always challenging herself to learn more. While there she met and fell in love with her physics professor, Alden Whetstone. His mind never failed to draw Meridian in.
When the call of WWII and developing the nuclear bomb drew Alden to Los Alamos, he and Meridian quickly married. She temporarily gave up her plans for a graduate degree in ornithology to follow Alden to Los Alamos. One year became two, and two became three, until Meridian realized the dreams of her own advanced degree had ceded to Alden’s greater calling. Through the years Meridian kept up her “science” by researching crows. She met people who influenced her life and understood the doubts she had about compromising her dreams to Alden’s. One of those people was Clay, a Vietnam veteran, who opened up Meridian to many new possibilities. Throughout the 60’s, 70’s and beyond, Meridian was challenged to change with the world or be left behind.
Review: I really loved this debut novel by Elizabeth Church. It was a little slow in the first few chapters, but then it took off and soared! The whole time I was reading The Atomic Weight of Love, I was thinking of my own mother and my grandmother. Meridian would fall roughly between their ages, and so much of what she experienced, the women in my family must also have experienced. Today, a woman as brilliant as Meridian would go off and get as much education as possible. She’d be out in the world using all she had learned to discover new things, write books, educate others.
In the 40’s and 50’s, it was the expectation that a woman would follow her husband and his career path even if it meant giving up her own. Most of the women at Los Alamos had abandoned careers and dreams for their husbands’ “greater” contributions. When talking with a friend about the “assumed compliance” of the wives living in Los Alamos Meridian comments,
“What I mean is that the entire culture assumed, right along with our husbands. It was understood. And while they might well respect us, sometimes even be a tad less intelligent than us, by marrying them we tacitly agreed to a contract in which we would sublimate. They did not have to subjugate – we did that for them.”
Meridian struggled with her lost career her entire life, but for most of it she couldn’t see her way clear to do things any differently. Like my grandmother, and to a lesser extent my mother, Meridian’s destiny was rooted in her husband’s choices.
I loved the changes in Meridian as she began to evolve with changing times. Clay, a much younger man, challenged Meridian to put herself first and look at what she wanted and needed most in her life. Church did a brilliant job of developing the female characters in The Atomic Weight of Love, even the lesser ones. You knew them well and understood the choices they made and the demands the times placed on each. The men seemed a little bit one-dimensional, but it was really Meridian’s story so that can be forgiven.
The author titled every chapter after a species of bird, telling what that species is called as a group and relating a small detail about each species. I grew to look forward to that little tidbit at the start of each chapter. Well done! Grade: A
Top international reviews
An inspiration to the independence of women but not to be confused as feminism
Meridian is very bright. She studies biology and plans to become an ornithologist studying crows. But dazzled by the intellect of the much older Alden Whetstone, she finds herself married young. Alden is a physicist who gets a job at Los Alamos working on the atomic bombs that ended WW II. The inevitable happens: Meri moves out to join him and ends up yielding her place at Cornell and her chance of a master’s degree. In the 1950’s this was so much more inevitable than it is today, but the masculine assumption that it will be so still hurts. Alden often displays the kind of classic male superiority complete with derogatory put downs that featured in Fay Weldon’s early work. The kind of thing that would have you throwing the book across the room and saying to yourself “Yes. That’s exactly how they do it.” Meri is no shrinking violet, but it’s a case of one woman against the patriarchy, so guess who wins?
Salvation of a sort comes when she meets Clay, a young geologist and Vietnam vet. They fall deeply in love, despite the age difference, and Meri has her own sexual revolution. She is set to follow him to Berkeley and resume her studies when Alden becomes very ill. It’s terminal, and Meri can’t in good conscience abandon him. Author Elizabeth Church makes us see that life is complicated. Meri sees that Alden loved her as best he could. So: men are just as much victims of patriarchy.
In her eighties, Meridian sets up an organisation called Wingspan, which helps young women broaden their horizons. And every birthday she receives thoughtful gifts from the now-married Clay. She boxes up her crow journals; the ones she kept during the earlier years of her marriage, and sends them to him.
This is a story that will resonate with many women, particularly those of us old enough to have been faced with these kinds of choices. It’s a beautifully written book, complex and deft. These are issues our societies still need to sort out.
As the decades pass, Meridian strives to resist the clipping of her wings. It is a choice that will make her enemies and bring her heartache, but it also opens up unexpected possibilities: of freedom, and friendship and transformation…"
I made the mistake of being seduced by the beautiful cover but this was not for me. I usually read fantasy, YA fiction, and historical crime and was looking for something different. While the story was quite readable, I didn't really like any of the characters and as such could put the book down and not want to pick it up again.
Although the character of Meridian is narrating the story I found it dispassionate, almost as if she were talking about somebody else, things that had happened to a different character. I found it quite a flat read and struggled to finish. Even towards the end when she is championing the cause of a younger female character and is explaining to the girl's parents about denied opportunities and their consequences, I could see that it was meant to be impassioned and heartfelt but I found I just didn't care.
Overall - Not for me.
It follows the story of Meridian Wallace, a brilliant young woman who falls in love with an intellectually brilliant man and follows him with his job, sacrificing a lot of herself in the process.
The writing is breathtaking and beautiful and Meridian is a vivid and entrancing character, so much so that I read the entire book in two sittings. That said, it was not a pleasant read and at times it was downright uncomfortable. I tried so hard to remind myself that it's written through the lens of societal norms in the 40s and 50s but when you realise the staggering similarities with today and realise through the prose how very little has changed, the book provides you with a bitter awakening. It almost hurt to read the women in this novel that were the architects of their own cages - happy to submit and sacrifice and let their intellect go unseen and dimmed.
I think the hardest part for me was that I initially ordered this book because I too fell in love with a brilliantly intellectual man and followed him across borders. I wasn't expecting to see quite so much of myself in Meridian but I did and it was painful in many ways. There was one comment in particular that was almost exactly the same as a comment my partner said to me and it was like a verbal punch in the stomach. The author has hit the nail right on the head.
Now that I have finished the book I am in a state of turmoil. I honestly believe that the raw power of this story has the potential to be a feminist anthem, a railing against the persistent, pervasive and insidious misogyny that is so ingrained in our society. I wonder how many women will read Meridian's story and catch glimpses of themselves, of their own actions and sacrifices, and see them in a new light.
I wanted this to be a book about hope, about inspiration and change, but the ending tore my heart out and kicked it around the room a few times. I would have made the same choices as Meridian, but I still cried for her, for that unfairness that fate doubles down on the patriarchy with. I applaud the author for not going with the obvious choices and at the very least I have walked away from this book more self aware and with a determination to be a better role model for the young women in my life. I loved the concept of Wingspan, of building a legacy that allows the hidden and unseen parts of ourselves to inspire others. But the book also left me with a sense of helplessness and sadness, that women have been fighting this same battle for 80 years (in the span of this book) and really so little has changed.
I can't leave this review without making some comment on the writing. I would consider myself to have a large vocabulary and there were still words in this that I had to look up. It's been a long time since I read something so challenging and beautifully written. The author's command of the language is exquisite. I also loved the information about birds that was at the beginning of each chapter. I didn't expect the book to be so educational or to learn so much about crows, but it's rather wonderful.
I usually finish my reviews with a statement about whether I would recommend this book to others, but in all honesty I don't know with this one. It is a beautiful read but you have to be brave of heart to read it in case you see reflections of yourself and the deeply flawed world we live in echoing between the pages.
This is a moving book, beautifully written, which looks at the accepted life of women over the past few decades and ends with some glimmers of hope into improving their lot.
This book is just less than 350 pages and split into chapters that are labelled by collective nouns for birds (eg. Pod of Meadowlark - who knew!!)
Meridian is born in the 1930s. She is well educated and encouraged to use her intelligence. At college she falls for her professor and, having married him, follows him as he becomes involved in the development of the nuclear bomb.
Having such an articulate individual as the main character gives the author plenty of scope to comment intelligently on societal expectations and changes throughout the later part of the century
The narrative is in the first person so we get into Meridian's thoughts - the reader is also credited with their own levels of judgment, allowing us to understand/evaluate emotions and decisions.
There are many references to nature throughout the story and we see it all through Meridian's eyes, allowing the reader to learn with the main character. As she ages so does her perspective on everything around her.
Reading this book has allowed me to lose myself in it, which hasn't happened by some time. Time just seemed to pass and I felt genuinely upset when I got to the end.
Meridian moves to Los Alamos in New Mexico where an insular community exists amongst male scientists and their wives, and initially with Alden she shares a satisfying academic and educational partnership, but she is never his equal and with few friends and at a long distance from her widowed mother she falls into the life of a bored housewife. For her own benefit she studies crows in a nearby canyon where she meets Vietnam veteran Clay. He is exciting and loving, and Meridian comes to realise how much of her own ambitions she has sacrificed in favour of her husband.
Referring to the flower-power hippie days of the 1960s and 1970s there are commentaries on feminist issues with insights to ongoing guilt over America’s use of the atomic bomb, and to anti-war feelings over the horrors of the Vietnam war. Meridian seeks a new identity and a different more fulfilling life, but she is constrained by circumstances. With a somewhat wacky start to each chapter describing various birds coupled to literary quotations the awakening of women to suppression in society is the main thrust of ‘The Atomic Weight of Love’. However narrative is clipped and disjointed, and there are huge gaps in Meridian’s progress. Also, the tenor of the writing style shifts from passive to assertive, with a hurried account of Meridian’s final years.
I really liked that each chapter begins with some facts about birds, a great addition to this book.
The story begins and appears to be a classic love story, where a young student falls in love with her teacher, who she later marries. However, as the story progresses it becomes more as the story gets deeper and more intense, as her husband is part of a top secret government programme. Leaving her marriage , she begins to study a family of crows and it is now that she begins a relationship with a man leading a hippie lifestyle and she finds herself.
A really well written story which kept me enthralled to the very end.
Meredith was brought up to be ambitious, and scientific research is her passion. She is a promising young student with abundant ideas for studying the behaviour of crows: a topic on which she plans to base her PhD thesis. But for a woman at university in the 1940s, she was seen as a bit of an anomaly: a strange bluestocking who didn't conform to what society expected of her. Other women went to college and got degrees, yes, but then many of them settled down and became "good" wives and mothers. As an aside, the societal differences are very interesting -- The Atomic Weight of Love is set in the States, where women went to university and studied for degrees decades before it became common in the UK.
When she meets her physics professor -- a man some years older than herself -- she didn't anticipate falling in love with him and then marrying him. Meredith is drawn to Alden through his passion for science, and she is inspired by this, envisioning an academic partnership where their life goals are driven by shared intellectual pursuits.
However, when Alden moves to Los Alamos to take part in a mysterious project that he cannot discuss, he is thousands of miles away from the university where Meredith plans to embark on her PhD, and he isn't keen for them -- as a married couple -- to live apart. So Meredith agrees to put her PhD on hold for a year and join her husband...
Without going further into the plot and giving a description of the whole book, The Atomic Weight of Love traces Meredith's path as it morphs into something very different from what she had expected. It is a thought-provoking read about the impact of society on a woman's ambition, how much she eventually realizes she has sacrificed and the impact that this has on her identity.
It is a beautifully written novel and the characters stand out as being nuanced and real. I also liked the ornithological theme that ran through the book -- each chapter begins with the name of a collective noun for a particular type of bird, which lends a poetic feel to the novel. The cover is also incredibly beautiful and I love the drawings of all the different birds with their species name.
Elizabeth J Church's descriptions of Los Alamos and academia are clearly well-grounded in research and her own background. Her father was sent to work in secret on the Manhattan Project there. Church's mother, a biologist, eventually joined him, and Elizabeth was born in Los Alamos. The bio stresses that The Atomic Weight of Love is not the story of her parents, but one can't help wondering how much is drawn from reality.
After a career in the law for over thirty years, The Atomic Weight of Love is Church's first novel. I do hope she writes more!
Its very well written, we get inside the head of our main character and through her we live the changes from the pre to post war world accompanied all along by the crows. Despite giving it all up for her man he however remains somewhat enigmatic and frankly rather selfish and hence for me not very likeable – so I wasn’t entirely clear why she gave it all up.
The beginning I really enjoyed, and, the story keeps you wanting to turn the pages. The life of the individuals developing the nuclear weapon told from the domestic standpoint is different. But as she enters middle age I felt it was all rather a cliché and the story became bogged down and rather boring towards the end despite the quality of the writing. Overall enjoyable, interesting certainly the angle of birds, but it missed something to make the tale complete.
Meri is a bright young girl, raised by a Mother ambitious for her only child's future, who works several jobs to put her through College. Meri works hard, does well and dreams of a Doctorate in Ornithology. Love intervenes when she falls for an older Scientific Professor who is drafted to work on the development of the Atomic Bomb. Once the War is over Alden wants to continue his work in New Mexico, which makes studying for a PhD impossible for Meri. She stays out of love for Alden and the rest of the novel is about the struggle that poses for her and the gradual dawning she will be treated as a chattel no longer.
This is an intriguing novel which is slow in parts. It probably helps if you like birds and more specifically crows as some of the dialogue is around ornithological observations of these birds' behaviour. I personally did not enjoy these bits of the novel much. The novel spans a long period and it is sometimes difficult to remember how much things have changed for women in terms of Society's expectations and at the same time how really little has changed in some areas for some women.
An interesting tale but one which did not especially grip my attention though I kept turning the pages. Needed a bit more oomph for my taste!