Sunday, September 11, 2016

The Atomic Weight of Love, by Elizabeth J. Church

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Spanning three decades between the 1940s and 1970s, Elizabeth J. Church's debut novel The Atomic Weight of Love chronicles one woman's journey from intellectual and spiritual oppression in American suburbia to personal emancipation in the counterculture Sixties.

Meridian Wallace is a young woman when the Second World War breaks out. When she wins a place at the University of Chicago, she decides to study ornithology. Her speciality is crows – their behaviour in groups. While studying she falls in love with the physics professor, Alden Whetstone. Alden is two decades older than Meridian, highly accomplished and soon to be drafted into a special war time project – the invention of the atomic bomb. The couple marry and Alden joins the war effort at Los Alamos, New Mexico. His work there is highly secretive. It means he must also spend large amounts of time away Meridian.

Meridian has career ambitions of her own, but finds she must put them aside to support her husband's career. As the marriage progresses, it becomes apparent that Alden doesn't really see Meridian as an intellectual equal. He treats her more as a child. Alden doesn't even bother to take an interest in Meridian's science work on the behaviour of crows. This causes enormous frictions in their relationship. Meridian grows  deeply dissatisfied as the years plod along. Eventually the marriage is nothing more than a formality, although Alden doesn't seem to mind this state of affairs.

Then along comes Clay. Twenty years younger than Meridian, Clay is a Vietnam veteran. He has rejected the war and now embraces the counterculture values of freedom and an open mind. The two begin a passionate affair that opens up Meridian to a whole new life – sexual, spiritual, emotional and intellectual.

Written in the first person, almost like a memoir, The Atomic Weight of Love hooks the reader in from the first page and keeps them there. Elizabeth J. Church does a brilliant job of describing the miserable career choices women faced in the 1940s and 50s, before second-wave feminism hit in the 1960s. The frustrations and anger at being held back and belittled is palpable on every page. Meridian's character is sympathetically drawn, ensuring that you become emotionally invested in her journey throughout the book. It's easy to empathise with her frustrating plight. The story's bleak descriptions of soul-destroying suburban life are relieved by Meridian's growing courage to strike out for her own freedom.

An absorbing debut that tells a deeply personal story through the prism of three decades of cultural history.

The Atomic Weight of Love, by Elizabeth J. Church. Published by Fourth Estate. ISBN: 9780008209308  RRP: $29.99

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