Saturday, July 23, 2016

Devotion en masse

The Atomic Weight of Love by Elizabeth Church

Meridian is very smart, and she wants to become an ornithologist, something very unusual for a girl growing up in post-WWI in America. With the support of her mother, and knowing she has the blessing of her late father she begins that journey. However, when she meets the brilliant lecturer Alden Whetstone and realizes she found her intellectual equal. After finishing her bachelor's degree, he convinces her to put off her graduate studies to follow him to his new top-secret job in Los Alamos, working to end the Second World War, through physics. With her life on hold, Meridian looks for meaning in her new surroundings.

On the surface, Meridian is the type of woman whose abilities, combined with an inner strength, are exactly what society at the time shunned. Her defiance of those norms wasn't very unusual, even for that time. However, even back then, people expected even educated women and their jobs to take a backseat to their husbands' careers. In this regard, when Meridian follows suit, we are not at all surprised. However, this was the first thing that disappointed me about this novel, even if being exceptional has somehow become the cliché in books of this sort.

Church tries to remedy this with Meridian's affair with a younger man later in life. With this part of her life, we get to know the passionate side of Meridian, and along with it, the coming-of-age realization of the depth of her regret for what she could have become. While this is heartening, here too we see a weakness in Meridian that we would certainly have preferred not to see. Of course, Church does this because otherwise, I don't think she thought that the ending of this book would have worked. Here too, I have to disagree to some extent, although not completely. The question is which is more of a cliché? A woman who knows she's repressing herself (or is a victim of repression), and stays in that situation anyway; or a woman who doesn't realize her potential until it is staring her in the face. In short, my feminist sensibilities tell me that Church didn't give me the kind of protagonist that I was looking for.

On the other hand, I also think that Church gave me exactly the type of character that was truly possible to imagine. Knowing this, you really can't help liking Meridian, mostly because Church's honest and open style makes her into a very sympathetic character. We do see where Meridian's rebellious side comes through, and we feel sorry for her when she can't take it just a little further. In my experience, when I see a character doing something I would have advised against, I usually get annoyed with the character (or the author). Not so here, where Church makes us see both sides of what Meridian is going through, and this makes us feel the same regrets that obviously Meridian is feeling. This isn't to say that Meridian is a pitiful character, since she does have enough small mutinies (and one very large one) to help us still admire her.

You can see my dilemma, can't you? While it seemed like Church sometimes allowed Meridian to take what seemed like the easy path, or at least the one most expected of women from her era, we also see that many of her decisions were fraught with difficult consequences. This dichotomy makes this book frustrating and rewarding at the same time.
Not to mention the whole bird metaphor of their freedom that's closely observed, which despite the many references seemed a tenuous connection at best. Perhaps this is exactly what Church was going for, particularly if you think about this book's title.

Because of all this, I've been debating what star rating I should give this novel. I certainly want to recommend it, especially because I found Church's style to be inviting and compelling. However, in all honesty, because of my mixed feelings about Meridian, I'm unable to give it more than three and a half stars.

"The Atomic Weigh of Love" by Elizabeth Church, published by Algonquin Books, released May 3, 2016, is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris as well as from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this novel via NetGalley in exchange for a fair review.