Wednesday, November 29, 2017

What did the In-Store Lit Group think of Elizabeth J. Church's "The Atomic Weight of Love"?

I was saying to Jane that when I do book club talks, so many folks ask for historical novels. I've done my best to get a few more on my radar, and this month's In-Store Lit Group selection kept that in mind.

Los Alamos looms large in our collective imaginations. It's where scientists developed the Atomic bomb, which might have ended World War II in the Pacific, but it was with devastating consequences that resonate today, as more countries have atomic weapons in their arsenal. This month our In-Store Lit Group discussed The Atomic Weight of Love, a novel about the women (and one in particular) behind the men at Los Alamos. The novel was a #1 Indie Next Pick in hardcover

Elizabeth J. Church's novel focuses on Meridian Wallace, a young woman from Greensberg, Pennsylvania*, whose mother, widowed young, works hard scrubbing toilets, so that Meri can attend the University of Chicago. She starts dating Jerry Bloom, a fellow student, and also turns the head of Alden Whetstone, a professor. Both are likely to present problems to Meri's education - Jerry will probably be called to the front (it is World War II, after all), while Alden has his secret project in New Mexico.

I'm not giving much away by revealing Meri's decision; most of the story does take place in New Mexico. It's a place where the husbands work and the wives, many of whom are stifled academics like Meri, garden and decorate and volunteer and attend book club. And most of all, they raise children. But Meri doesn't have children. And Alden becomes more absorbed in his work and less interested in Meri, except when it comes to serving his needs.

Meri, however, finds an outlet in observing crows, returning to her interest in ornithology. And there she finds a fellow observer, a younger academic who is something a free spirit. OK, I'll say it because it is the 1960s; he's a hippie.

The Atomic Weight of Love reminds me of a bit of the feminist self-actualization novels of the 1970s from Marilyn French and Marge Piercy, of women finding themselves after being stifled by the lack of choices. Like these classic novels, there's an awakening of consciousness as the years go by. But Meri has a little more trouble making a definitive choice than some previous heroines, which led to some heated discussion.

The novel's chapters are framed by bird observations, with "a parliament of owls" followed by a brief description. And birds play an important part in the book, so it is not surprising that the book was recommended to me by my friend Nancy at the Schlitz Audubon Nature Center. If you like birds, this book will have extra resonance for you.

Church is said to have been inspired by her own family for the story. Her father was a research chemist in Los Alamos. And she wondered what options there could have been for the women who settled in town with their husbands.

Reading and discussing Elizabeth Church's novel led to several surprises. Reaction to the story was varied, but it was harder to predict than I expected who would take to the book. Several of the male attendees were big fans, which I did not expect from a novel where the villain (if you think there is one) was Alden. But it's possible that I read the story with certain expectations - a number of the readers had more sympathy for Alden than I expected.

Being that we had several women in the group who had made similar decisions as Meri (as well as one nuclear chemist), the conversation turned out to be quite lively. Oh, the parenting issue alone! It just goes to show that some of the best conversations arise when there's a difference of opinion about a book.

Church has moved from Algonquin to Random House for her next book, All the Beautiful Girls, which releases March 6, 2018. It's about a woman who also transforms her identity, but instead of going from academic to housewife, she becomes a Las Vegas dancer.

More links here so you can do a little less key word searching:
--New York Times review
--Santa Fe New Mexican review
--Minneapolis Star Tribune review
--Book Browse interview
--American Booksellers Association interview

And now for a few answers to questions that historical fiction fans are sure to ask. Did Church do research for this book? Yes. Is Meridian based on a specific person? Not to my knowledge.

Here are our next three In-Store Lit Group discussions.

On Monday, December 4, 7 pm, we're reading Zadie Smith's Swing Time, which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize.

On Tuesday, January 2, 7 pm (Boswell closes at 5 pm on New Year's Day), we're reading newly minted Nobel Laureate Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go.

On Monday, February 5, 7 pm, we're reading Chloe Benjamin's The Anatomy of Dreams, a novel with speculative thriller elements about lucid dreaming, which won the Edna Ferber Fiction Book Award from the Council for Wisconsin Writers. We're so excited about Benjamin's second novel, The Immortalists, which publishes January 9, 2018 and Benjamin visits Boswell on January 18, 7 pm. That's a lot of dates, so pay attention.

*Digression alert: years ago I read a nonfiction book partly set in Greensberg, Pennsylvania called The Malling of America. It's out of print but I  found the Kirkus Review. I am fascinated that the author reissued it 17 years after its original publication through Xlibris.

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