The Atomic Weight of Love by Elizabeth J. Church would be a fantastic book for a book club discussing feminist issues–I may have to post it as a suggestion to Emma Watson’s Our Shared Shelf. I was somewhat mislead by the descriptions into thinking there would be more about the development of the atomic bomb, and now that I’ve finished it I would hesitate to categorize it as related to World War II or the atomic bomb.
First of all, its time frame goes far beyond the end of World War II, past Vietnam, even to the present day, although the main narrative stops in the mid- to late-1970s (or thereabouts).
But mostly, I’d hesitate because the book is really about Meridian and her experiences as a woman interested in a career in science–ornithology–and the expectations put on her by her husband in particular, but also by society. Expectations in the form of putting her own needs and desires on hold in order to be a “good wife.”
The book deals with everything–all the different ways in which women of Meridian’s time (and to some extent today as well) were kept down–sexually, financially, legally. She talks about not wanting children and the way that separated her from other women, as well as the ways in which women contribute to holding each other back. There is a scene where a doctor hardly talks with her–the patient–and instead gives his diagnosis to her husband, and both men refuse to discuss it with her. The lack of clear, honest communication between husband and wife is at times astounding to me, and yet it rings true.
At one point, a number of years into the marriage, Meridian’s husband Alden is arguing that maybe she should get pregnant, indicating that, “We talked about this.” Meridian is totally clueless as to when they had discussed having children before, and he reminds her of a conversation they had before they were married.
“What I remember,” I said, choosing my words carefully, “was that you mentioned your [previous] wife had a couple of miscarriages.”
“Right,” he said, nodding. “So I made it clear that I wanted children.”
She somehow manages to gently tell him that this was not at all what she took from that comment, and that she doesn’t really want children of her own. To which he replies, “Sometimes, Meri, I get the feeling you’re just a little bit unnatural.”
I found it interesting that apparently many of the original Los Alamos atomic scientists were married to highly educated women–women with doctorates in hard sciences–who then gave up their own aspirations to be wives and mothers. And I love the way in which Meridian is eventually able to help them reconnect to their lost ambitions through educating later generations of young women.
I’m not sure how well it fit into my challenge–I’m working on a post on all the wonderful references to books and music that nailed this book’s setting in time. However, I’m not sure I came away from the book knowing any more than I did before about New Mexico. Despite that feeling, I know that there were some wonderful descriptions of New Mexico scenery, so I’ll be trying to figure out what’s missing for me, and will post on it soon.
Regardless of whether it fit my challenge perfectly or had enough birds in it to suit me, The Atomic Weight of Love by Elizabeth J. Church is a wonderful, thought-provoking book that I found very enjoyable and would recommend.