With previous publications like Purple Hibiscus and Water for Elephants, the latest release from Workman Books under the imprint, Algonquin Books, Elizabeth J. Church’s novel, The Atomic Weight of Love, sits among fine company.
Church, who grew up in Los Alamos, the New Mexico township in which the novel is set, says though the story is fiction, it is based on true events. Namely, of her scientist father who was sent to Los Alamos to work on the Manhattan Project in 1942. The Manhattan Project was a secret military project that saw the creation of the US’s first nuclear weapon. Church also draws inspiration from her mother, who left her education and career behind to be with the man she loved.
It follows Meridian Wallace, who at the beginning of the story is a young, bright girl who has a passion for birds. Meridian narrates, describing anecdotes from her girl years into her development into a young, smart and ambitious woman throughout the Second World War. It’s at University where she blooms, excelling in biology and on the way to becoming an orthologist when she meets Alden, a scientist and professor twenty years her senior. The two fall in love and get married quickly, before Alden is sent to Los Alamos on a confidential task – and Meridian decides to join him, suspending her studies for a short while.
Alden is vanilla ice-cream. He’s the Prius you buy instead of a Mustang. He’s the safe, reliable option you go back to. You know he’s not the most passionate, the most interesting, the most amazing guy – in fact, he’s a bit of a bore. Divorced with no kids when Meri meets him, Alden is old enough to be her father, and at times, he certainly acts like it.
The Atomic Weight of Love combines the ambitions of a young woman with the gender roles and expectations of the 1940s considerably well. We, like a mother who only wants the best for our daughter, shake our head when Meri chooses to suspend her studies. Like the all-knowing outside we are, we can see that while other characters are circles, Meridian is a triangle, and her husband Alden is, undoubtedly, a square.
Church’s writing style is intriguing, and I adored the first quarter of the novel – the development of Meri, her ambition as a young woman and her interest in crows; an interest that is suspended across the length of the novel. But very quickly, it all falls flat.
Almost as much as Alden dominates Meri’s life and decision making process, his overtly-described dullness invades the novel. Suddenly, all the beautiful prose in the world can’t detract from the plodding pace of the story. Much like the small town of Los Alamos, nothing very ever much happens in the story.
I battled between putting this books down (indeed, it took me several weeks to read) and wanting to shake the characters so they came to their senses. As much as I wanted this story to stay with me, I found it long, tedious and unrewarding, and believe I am blessed to think so. To find similarities within Meridian is to acknowledge that, at some point in your life’s journey, you’ve given up your ambition, education, and in certain points, your own happiness, for a relationship.