I first loved him because he taught me the flight of a bird, precisely how it happens, how it is possible. Lift. Wing structure and shape, the concepts of wing loading, drag, thrust. The perfectly allotted tasks of each differently shaped feather. The hollowness of bones to reduce weight, to overcome gravity. I was too young to realize that what I really yearned to know was why birds take flight— and why, sometimes, they refuse.
The Atomic Weight of Love by Elizabeth J. Church examines the delicate balance between love and duty and the multitude of ways each is present throughout life. Meridian is an intelligent woman whose love for birds transcended all other things in her early life.
That’s where my career as an ornithologist began— at the dinner table, beside the train tracks, in the late-night hours while my parents slept and I read lying in the empty bathtub. When I found a dead goldfinch on the walk home from school, my father applied the balm of Darwin to my broken heart.
As she grows she becomes more desperate to solidify her place in academia. She sets out to study ornithology- a field in the sciences that is, like most, male dominated, during a time that women are still the large minority in the universities.
The whole enterprise was far bolder than I. I concealed fears: near-certainty of my dire lack of qualifications and absolute certainty of my inability to fit in. The first day of classes, I rushed between buildings, the heavy, costly textbooks in the book bag bouncing off of my hip. In a gloomy, bell-jar-lined classroom in the zoology building, I sat near the front and watched men— all men— file in to join me. A few of them met my eyes, smiled tentatively. I saw clean-shaven cheeks and starched shirts, hastily tied Windsor knots. Some nodded, but none sat next to me.
As she struggles to find her place, she finds solace in a romance between a renowned physic’s professor, Alden Whetstone. Her growing love for him helps to spark the topic for the final project of her academic career.
I knew my master’s thesis would be on crow behavior, the social aspects of the bird, but I also knew I needed to hone in on a narrower aspect of their social lives. I longed to know how, when, and why they formed allegiances and if those bonds crossed familial boundaries. I wanted to understand loyalty— to know if it derived solely from evolutionary advantage, or if it might also be motivated by something else, something akin to caring, love, and devotion.
Like her crows, when Alden is dispatched to Los Alamos, New Mexico for a top secret project (what is known to us now as the construction of the Atomic Bomb), Meri loyally follows her husband- giving up her studies, her degree and her dreams.
Men do. Women make do. We wait, patient Penelope at the hearth. We conform, good girls in girdles. We serve, suppressed sighs growing stale. We meld with oblivion, Flying ever in his slipstream.
Resentment and discontent slowly erode the foundation of Meridian and Alden’s love. The pressure and weight of the truth behind Alden’s work drive him deeper into his science while pushing Meri away because she so desperately wants to have a place in her community both scientific or otherwise.
In the gloom I heard his breath deepen, watched his shoulders release their tension. He’d said his piece at long last, and now he could relax. For me, any chance of sleep had vanished, and so I took my book, a blanket, and a pillow into the bathroom and climbed into the empty tub, just as I had when I was a girl. The hard sides of the bathtub seemed an appropriate place for me to lay my body that night— unforgiving and nonmalleable. I couldn’t concentrate, though. Finally, I pulled a hand towel from the rack, bit down on it, and used it to muffle my sobs. I let my shoulders spasm, felt the muscles of my lower back tighten into fists of pain.
To fill the void left by Alden’s rejections Meri embarks on an attempt to rediscover her love for birds in the desert of New Mexico. She finds a lone group of crows and throws herself wholeheartedly into their study. In the desert she discovers more than just her love for ornithology- she finds her youth and sexuality in a young war veteran, Clay.
Nestled against Clay’s naked body and drifting off to sleep that night, I thought about what Clay had told me about geologic rifts. That they were the earth pulling apart, like wounds opening. I wondered at the depth and mystery of it, a crack in the earth, in myself. Part of me recognized it as a potentially dangerous breach of my skin; another part of me relished the possibility for change that it posed, the powerful forces at work.
A poignant examination of family and the expectations therein The Atomic Weight of Love takes all the nuances of marriage, infidelity, feminism and self-worth in the 1940s and beyond and puts them under the microscope to be examined with true finesse and depth.
As I watched him, I wondered how many times a heart can heal. Are we allotted a specific number of comebacks from heartbreak? Or is that what really kills us, in the end— not strokes or cancer or pneumonia— but instead just one too many blows to the heart? Doctors talk of “cardiac insults”— such a perfect turn of phrase— but they know nothing of the heart, not truly.
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A review copy of this title was provided by HarperCollins via Netgalley.