In 1941, Meridian Wallace begins her ornithology studies at the University of Chicago, determined to prove worthy of the sacrifices her mother made for her to enable this to happen.
Although dating a student similar in age she falls in love with her physics professor Alden Whetstone who is twenty years older than her. “When I was with Alden –discussing listening, leaning across tables and fully animated –life was painted in more vibrant colours; birdsong was more elaborate, rococo.” But when Alden goes to Los Alamos in a secret government project (later known to be the atomic bomb), Meri has to decide whether to continue with her studies or be with Alden in New Mexico.
“By morning I’d found a place of compromise. I agreed to a one year trial period. I’d still do what I could in terms of crow observation, and then I’d use that research as a foundation for my master’s degree.”
The reader feels Meri’s frustration as the storyline continues to map out her life attending a women’s discussion group in the town as well as exploring the area studying her crows. When in 1970 she meets Clay, a young geologist and veteran of the Vietnam War, her life gains new meaning and she begins to question her life with the professor.
The Atomic Weight of Love examines the changing roles of women following the Second World War and the Vietnam conflict when it was still the expectation that women would fit in with a man’s plan, sometimes at the expense of their own dreams.
This is the first novel written by Elizabeth J Church, who has practised law for more than thirty years. She was born in Los Alamos and still lives there now and her writing reflects her intimate knowledge of a fascinating area. “Hardy adaptive plant life managed to wedge itself into dust-filled cracks in the lava, and there were bluffs where rainwater collected in shallow pools.”
Church has given each chapter a title which includes a different bird such as “A Deceit of Lapwings” and she has then cleverly included aspects in the chapter which is reflected in the title. I found it a slow read to begin with but was soon gripped with the story and its surprising ending. The cover of the book is stunning with birds beautifully displayed in a periodic table setting.
Reviewed by Lesley McIntosh
The Atomic Weight of Love
by Elizabeth J Church
Published by HarperCollins