One of the things that made The Atomic Weight of Love come alive was Elizabeth J. Church’s use of music, books, movies, advertisements, and television to fully realize the time setting of the novel.
In addition to the expected war news tidbits, numerous times Church refers to the release of a book or movie to help ground the story firmly in time, reminding us of the broader mind frame of society through the popular culture of the day.
In September, Kitty, Red, and I saw Bette Davis marry an older man to save her brother from embezzlement charges in Mr. Skeffington.
According to Wikipedia and Rotten Tomatoes, the movie was released in May 1944, which means the timing is a little off, but the parallels of Meri marrying a professor 20 years her senior were probably too good to pass up, and it’s close enough. It seems to be remembered mainly as the film that earned Davis her eighth Oscar nomination–watch it for stellar performances by Davis and Claude Rains, but not necessarily because it’s a great movie.
Alden had stocked the shelves with some Southwest guidebooks and histories. He even included a best-selling novel I’d mentioned wanting to find the time to read–A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith was published in 1943, and has themes that would likely have appealed to Meri–it is essentially the coming-of-age story of a smart girl from a very poor family in Brooklyn. It was apparently very popular at the time and was re-released in the small, lightweight editions that were published for soldiers during the war. A movie version was released in 1945.
We also see (hear) the musical setting change over time from Dinah Washington, to Tom Jones, to Janis Joplin. I laughed out loud at Meri and Clay’s discussion about Tom Jones!
Tom Jones came on the radio singing “Daughter of Darkness,” and I turned up the volume, sang along. …
He reached over and switched off the radio. “You have got to be fucking kidding me.” … “Please tell me you don’t watch his show. Those pants! The guy’s ridiculous.”
“Those pants are one of the major reasons women watch his show. We pretend it’s about his voice, but where else are we going to see something like that? Men have their magazines and strip clubs.”
One of the best of Church’s cultural inclusions as setting is The Snake Pit. This was a fantastic bit, pitch perfect for the situation.
Meridian asks Alden to take her to a doctor when she begins bleeding after having increasingly painful abdominal cramping. The doctor (whose nurse tells Meri that he doesn’t have a lot of OB/GYN experience) barely talks to his patient, but instead tells Alden she has developed a false pregnancy and sends her home. Meri is livid.
That man didn’t say ten words to me, and he’s comfortable diagnosing me as a crazy person? A hysterical woman? … You let a doctor who knows nothing about me call me a liar. A crazy person.
She wakes in the night with debilitating pain, and Alden seems to realize that something really is wrong. They return to the hospital, where she is seen by a different doctor. This man actually speaks to her, rather than Alden, to determine her symptoms and give his diagnosis–a ruptured Fallopian tube due to an ectoptic pregnancy.
She is still in the hospital recovering from blood loss and her surgery on her birthday, and Alden brings her a book.
Anticipating some treatise on bird behavior or maybe a Darwin first edition, I eagerly removed the paper.
It’s not either of those; not even close. It’s a book called The Snake Pit by Mary Jane Ward, about, “A woman with schizophrenia and her experiences in an insane asylum.”
“It’s on the bestseller list,” he said proudly. … “The critics love it, and psychiatric experts agree that it’s well done–honest.” Excitedly, he took the book from my hands, read about the author. “It’s part fact, part fiction. She really was institutionalized for a time.”
And when Meridian has the temerity to suggest that it might not be the most appropriate book to give her just now, he gets offended.
“Sometimes you purposefully misunderstand me, Meri.” He shook his head, the put-upon husband. “You’re overly sensitive.”
This example of Alden’s clueless, insensitive behavior had me simultaneously rolling with laughter, shaking my head in disbelief, and acknowledging that it rings so true. It’s a real credit to Elizabeth J. Church to have found and created this gem!
Throughout this book, I felt much more connected to the novel’s setting in time than I did to the place. Not that there weren’t place descriptions–there were some lovely ones (and I’ll have more to say about that soon). But somehow I didn’t feel a connection to the place setting the way I did while reading some of the Alaska books.
One missing element is the people. Most of the people Meridian interacts with are transplants like her–the other scientists’ wives (and, in fact, the whole community of Los Alamos at the time she arrives). She says at one point that she wants to get to know the people of this strange new country, but I don’t feel as though she ever really does. She certainly doesn’t get to know the Native Americans personally. (Again, I’ll have more to say about this soon.)
Another curious aspect is the lack of current events to ground the time setting. Obviously, during World War II, there are certain historical events that are mentioned that cement the book’s place in time, but once World War II ends, there is very little of that. Meridian becomes friends with a Vietnam War veteran, but, with the exception of “The week-long protests in Washington, D.C., by the Vietnam Veterans Against the War [which] took place in April of 1971,” there is little mention of current events.
Nixon and Watergate are not mentioned, nor the 26th Amendment to the Constitution, lowering the voting age to 18 (or the failed Equal Rights Amendment, which seems even more pertinent to the story). Even the death of Janis Joplin is not mentioned, despite her music becoming important to Meri.
These seem somewhat surprising oversights, but then I’d come across a detail, like the article about the Manhattan Project in the August 20, 1945 issue of LIFE magazine, or the 1945 textbook on The Physics of Flight by Alfred Lande, and all would be forgiven as I found myself fully immersed in the time of the novel.