Meridian Wallace, the first-person narrator of Elizabeth J. Church’s debut novel “The Atomic Weight of Love,” marries a man twenty years older than her, and later has an affair with a man twenty years her junior. These relationships are fitting for a woman who never feels comfortable in her age.
As a University of Chicago student in 1941, Meridian becomes infatuated with a professor who is soon hired to work on the Manhattan Project. Attracted to his powerful intellect, Meridian marries and moves with him to Los Alamos. Her decisions end Meridian’s academic career as an ornithologist, although she continues to conduct research on crows while in New Mexico. Her husband, a brilliant physicist with the emotional intelligence of Mr. Coffee, keeps Meridian safe within their home while failing to recognize her personal frustration.
Despite the cultural restriction imposed in her era, Meridian maintains her curiosity and independence, and the portrayal of her character is the novel’s strongest feature. The secondary characters are less compelling characters — her husband is entirely one-dimensional, and her affair is with a man straight out of a Harlequin Romance, complete with flowing hair. Her female friends also serve to elicit reactions from Meridian, and are entirely forgettable. But Meridian is a character strong enough to overcome the novel’s shortcomings, and makes “The Atomic Weight of Love” a worthy read.
On a personal note, I also admire that Church wrote this novel at the age of sixty, after three decades of legal work. I hope my own first novel can be as finely crafted as this.