Tuesday 13 June 2017

The Atomic Weight of Love - Elizabeth J Church (2016)

The Atomic Weight of Love is a fascinating novel, not so much because of its story or characters, although they are both rendered in a more than adequate fashion, but because it is a great example of how a novel does not necessarily need to be a work of literary genius to be affecting or even significant. Church’s own life story greatly influenced the content of this novel, having been born in Los Alamos to a father directly involved in the Manhattan Project and subsequent nuclear research after the end of WWII. However the novel is not Church’s life story; the main protagonist, Meridian Wallace, is an amalgam of many women she knew who lived in the Los Alamos community who put their careers and lives on hold to support their husbands work. Thematically the novel concerns itself with feminism with its portrayal of female subjugation in the face of patriarchal expectation and societal tradition. 

The Atomic Weight of Love, after a brief exposition of Meridian’s childhood, begins in earnest in 1941 at the University of Chicago where Meridian is studying ornithology. Meridian is a brilliant young student with a promising career ahead of her, however she meets and falls in love with Alden Whetstone, a physics professor twenty years her senior, whom she subsequently marries. Alden soon becomes involved with the development of the atomic bomb in Los Alamos. When the war ends Meridian is faced with the choice of being with her husband in Los Alamos or finishing her studies in Chicago. She agrees to postpone her studies for a year, effectively sealing her fate as just another unfulfilled housewife in Los Alamos. Such a premise could easily result in a novel rife with cliche, one dimensional characterizations and sentimentality, however Church has succeeded in producing a subtle representation of the emergence of the post war wave of feminism. Alden is predominantly portrayed not as an unrelenting misogynist (although he does have his moments), but as very much a product of his times, with all the gender role playing baggage that comes with it. Meridian, despite being an intelligent and capable women, becomes trapped and stupefied by her unstimulating house-wife existence.

Over a number of decades Meridian makes friends and tries to keep herself busy, but most significantly she ventures into the semi-arid wilderness around Los Alamos to study a group of crows. Her observations of crow behavior and her thoughts and realizations about her own life often intermingle, sometimes resulting in some perhaps too obvious analogies. It is during one of her forays into the wilderness that she meets a man called Clay, a man who is twenty years younger than her. Clay is also a Vietnam veteran and budding geologist. Clay is an obvious narrative device to offer Meridian a way out of her unfulfilled life and in some ways he is a cliched character, however as the novel progresses and their relationship becomes more complex Clay becomes the perfect means to reveal the dysfunctional cracks in the social mores that trapped Meridian in the first place.

The Atomic Weight of Love is set during great periods of upheaval and change, yet Church, on the whole, chooses not to allow the events and issues of the time period to dominate. World War Two, the moral questions surrounding atomic warfare, the Vietnam war, civil rights, the counterculture (although Clay is a hippy, as explored in some memorable scenes) and feminism itself, are mainly kept in the background or used as a means to give personal events or points of view context. Church has been criticized for only superficially exploring these issues, marking this apparent flaw as a wasted opportunity. There is certainly some validity to this criticism, however if these issues were in the narrative foreground then The Atomic Weight of Love would be a completely different novel and lose its prime thematic focus: as a very personal portrayal of the issues that led to the rise of post war feminism. Church should be lauded for being so subtle in her approach and not just writing another historical novel about America and the world in the mid twentieth century. Personally I very much appreciate that Church has written a narrative that resulted in me being interested in the life and welfare of its principle protagonist despite it being a novel I would not normally want to read if it were not for my book club duties.

During the meetings for the novel I asked the predominately (older) female attendees if they felt empathy for Meridian, and also if they considered the novel to be important in terms of reminding younger readers of why there was a need for feminism in the first place. Curiously many had little sympathy for Meridian, pointing out that she should have been stronger willed. No one considered the novel to be important, although some believed the novel to be worth reading and Meridian to be a fair representation of a woman living during that era and circumstance. I must say that I was surprised by some of the reactions to the novel, particularly from female members whom I thought would be much more sympathetic to Meridian’s plight. All three meetings were characterized by polarized opinions regarding the novel’s quality and subject matter, but particularly regarding Meridian’s life choices and attitudes. To my mind such polarization of opinion, healthy debate and the obvious qualities of the novel suggest that The Atomic Weight of Love can be considered a successful novel; but is it important in the context of the ongoing story of feminism? Perhaps it is at least an indicator that a feminist text does not need to written by Camille Paglia, Germaine Greer or Clementine Ford to be worthwhile; that popular literary fiction can be just as successful in conveying important themes and sparking debate as its more ‘serious’ literary counterparts.

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