A Quiet Feminism
There's an entire generation of women who are pretty consistently attacked by the feminist movement for having been "content" to "just" be wives and mothers. It's an attack that is both unfair and untrue, and Elizabeth J. Church's debut novel, The Atomic Weight of Love, gives us the inside look into this, The Greatest Generation...of women.
We first meet a young Meridian Wallace as she is embarking on her undergraduate studies in ornithology at the University of Chicago in 1941. She's bright, vivacious, intelligent and full of promise...and already an outcast. She is engrossed in her studies, determined to make it into a masters program, and genuinely enamored with science. So, while it may seem clichéd to some, it is not surprising when she develops a romantic relationship with one of her professors. Alden Whetstone gives her what the men of her age will not: a genuine respect for her intelligence and a mind equal to hers with similar interests. And...this is where the fairy tale ends.
Alden is enlisted to help with the Manhattan Project, so shortly after their engagement he heads to New Mexico. For a while, Meridian tries to straddle both her ambitions to continue her studies and her desire to support the man she has come to love. Ultimately, she goes to Los Alamos with him and this single choice will alter her life immeasurably.
Three fantastic reasons to pick up this book:
1. The birds. Meridian's ornithological studies are brilliantly woven into the storyline of this book, and I have never in my life been so amazed by crows. Church interweaves the habits of various species of birds into each chapter in ways that are equal parts poetic and poignant. "Flight requires defiance of gravity and is really, when you think about it, a bold act...don't confuse gliding with soaring. To soar, an animal must have evolved to possess specific physiological and morphological adaptations." Beautiful.
2. The women. Meridian is a fantastic character, but so are ALL of the women in the book. Once in New Mexico, she discovers a collection of neighbors from varying backgrounds and situations. From June Jacobsen (the woman with a Masters in Chemistry who runs experiments in what soil additives will produce the best results in her garden) to Belle (the feisty nurse who brings comfort to women who are overlooked by their male doctors) to Emma (the quiet but constant source of support and intellectual equal to Meridian), we see a brood of hens who repeatedly take whatever life hands them and tirelessly continue to carve a place for themselves in the world.
3. The era. The Greatest Generation is called that for a pretty specific reason. Meridian is a child during the Depression years, a college-bound young lady during WWII, and lives through the sexual revolution of the 60's as well as observing the effects of Vietnam. And through her, we see the changing roles of women across the years as well. It's a quiet, often frustrating, brand of feminism but watching her grow and change with the times gives an honest, heartfelt glimpse into what it truly meant to be "just" a wife in those times.
The Atomic Weight of Love is a gorgeous story of one woman trying to find the strength and courage to soar. It's at times heartbreaking, and there are moments which are exasperating. But there are so many more moments which are full of love, hope, aspirations for a better future, and a constant, consistent support between women. To top it all off, the writing is superb. Add this to your summer reading list, friends - you won't be disappointed.
Elizabeth J. Church