Sometimes you can judge a book by its cover. That is certain true of The Atomic Weight of Love by Elizabeth J. Church. The moment I saw the cover with its stunning Periodic Table of the Birds, I was hooked. The title drew me in, too, with a clever nod to science. It told me immediately that the book would not just be about love and relationships, but about people with an interest in science, an interest that takes them outside themselves.
The narrator is Meridien Wallace, Meri, a young woman who was deeply influenced by her father’s love of learning and her mother’s firm dedication to ensuring she got a good education. Since she was ten, she knew she wanted to be an ornithologist and sure enough, she went to University of Chicago and studied biology, impressing her professors and earning acceptance to Columbia for graduate school.
But other things were happening during her college years, things like World War II. She was infatuated with a physics professor named Alden whose mind captured her mind and heart when she heard him lecture on physics and flight. They developed a romance of the mind, disrupted by his move to New Mexico for a secret research project. Perhaps the separation gave their love more urgency, so they married, postponing Meri’s plan to go to graduate school for a time.
And so begins a marriage of dreams deferred. Meri refused to succumb to every pressure to mold herself into the perfect Los Alamos wife. She continued to research birds, though for her personal journals, without the support, supplies and academic rigor she would have applied if a graduate student. Alden, working always on secret projects, seems to have lost the capacity to carry on a conversation with her. The enchantment of shared scientific inquiry and intelligence faded into the dullness of routine and apathy.
But life throws curve balls, sometimes several. And a young man named Clay finds his way into her life. Twenty years younger than her, he finds in her some of what she had found in Alden all those years ago. And she finds love. Far more complicated for her than for him, but a strong, abiding love that perhaps can withstand all those complications, or perhaps not…to be honest, the story goes off in a way I did not expect, but it rang true.
If this were just a story about the absolute necessity of Friedan’s The Feminist Mystique, it would not be the deeply affecting, humane story that it is. This is not just a story of a marriage suffocating a woman’s mind and ambitions, but also the story of a well-meaning man whose inability to understand did not diminish his love and commitment and the story of another man whose ability to love never wavers. Above all, it is how Meridien finds fulfillment in her life in ways quite different from her expectations and the expectations of society.
I really loved the writing in this book. There are moments of exquisite prose that make you pause. Most books can muster up some excellent bits for the important parts, but Elizabeth Church brings precision, originality and delicacy even to relatively minor moments. For example, near the end of the novel, Meri goes to visit a woman friend who in a nursing home with Alzheimers. Her friend is asleep. “Her eyes flicker beneath translucent eyelids painted with shattered patterns of burgundy capillaries” It is sentences like that, with the poetic assonance of “shattered patterns” and the powerful visual imagery that suffuse this book with magic.
And then you add an emotionally powerful story of a woman who loses herself in society’s expectations and finds herself in her middle age, finding a new way to live and a new belief in herself. It really is wonderful.
- The Atomic Weight of Love by Algonquin Books