In Other Words
The Atomic Weight of Love by Elizabeth J. Church
She was a sixty-year-old widow who had just walked out on three decades of a legal career. But Elizabeth Church had no second thoughts about shaking up her life and returning to her hometown of Los Alamos to write her first novel, The Atomic Weight of Love.
“I’ve always wanted to write. My husband died prematurely. He was full of regret over everything he would not get to do in life,” Church said, in an interview with Pasatiempo. “I knew exactly what I would regret — not writing. So I sold my house. I didn’t care if I ended up living in a cardboard box outside the library for the wifi, I would still be smiling.”
Released earlier this month by Algonquin Books, Church’s debut novel has picked up early buzz. Amazon named it a Best Book of May 2016, and booksellers across the country have voted it number one on the Indie Next List of recommended books for May. Church will read from The Atomic Weight of Love at Collected Works Bookstore on Tuesday, May 24.
Written from the first-person perspective, the novel follows the life of Meridian Wallace, whom we meet as a naive young woman studying ornithology at the University of Chicago in the early 1940s. Fascinated by science and alienated by young men her age, who look askance at her seriously studious ways, she falls in love with Alden Whetstone, a scientist two decades her senior. They marry quickly, as Wallace shelves her dreams to follow her new husband to the Manhattan Project unfolding in Los Alamos. Decades roll by as she puts her research on hold to tend to a cranky husband whose attractive qualities are largely cerebral. She builds a social life from meeting other brilliant women who have indefinitely paused their careers and creative pursuits to support their spouses.
But Meridian’s life gets shaken in the 1970s. She takes to the canyons of Northern New Mexico to study a family of crows. Against a backdrop of student protest, she meets Clay, a geologist and Vietnam War vet still open to the wonder of the world. Overturning decades of submission, Wallace, in midlife, begins to chart her own flight path out of a marriage of several decades.
In conversation, Church said her depictions of marriage between Alden Whetstone and Meridian Wallace can sometimes seem jarring to younger readers, unfamiliar with the social script of a 1950s marriage. “We negotiate our relationships now. They weren’t like that back in the day. I think some younger readers find it hard to believe that men in marriage could be so autocratic. It’s still hard to believe that’s how it once was.”
Meridian’s is a marriage without romance, held together by her earnest attraction to her husband’s intellect and her overlooking of his many ineptitudes. “Alden seems kind of autistic in terms of his ability to connect with other people,” Church said. “I think that’s true of a lot of brilliant people who lead mostly interior lives. They simply have no interest in gaining those extra social skills.”
Church ably deals with recreating the specifics of the era, particularly the 1970s. There’s a laughout-loud moment when Meridian’s stodgy husband walks her through the step-by-step procedures of operating a Crock-Pot he has purchased for her. But as a novelist, Church’s real skill lies in recreating the conversational dynamics of a stultifying marriage, whose intimacy has long since withered.
“Alden had told me before that he no longer needed sex the way I did, that he’d ‘gone past that,’ as if he’d evolved beyond me, ascended to some Dantean stratosphere of perfection,” Church writes. “But it was more than sex that was missing, that left me aching, lonely. We’d lost the core of our relationship. Alden and I no longer reached deeply into each other, no longer strived to know and understand each other. Genuine intimacy had been supplanted by boredom, lassitude.”
When Clay enters her life — as both a man of science and of experience — he stirs Meridian’s passions with his hand-written letters: “LIFE IS SHORT. I have seen my friends die. I have killed people, too many people. I know the smell of flesh burning, and sometimes at night I hear screams, cries. Flight is possible, but we have to flight — it has be a decisive action, a purposeful, brave act.” For all of Clay’s existential, masculine bravado, Meridian is still wary. She wants Clay’s love forever but worries it may barely last the summer. “I tried to enjoy each moment, not to project myself into the future, but every time Clay and I made love I felt I’d eaten another chocolate in a box of candy — that soon enough, all I’d have left was paper wrappers and the ephemeral memory of sweetness.”
The book’s conclusion pivots on whether Meridian finds “the strength to leave a fading man.” After all, Meridian realizes that if she leaves, her departure will be far more than a bumpy midlife crisis. “I was afraid — contemplating the ramifications of leaving Alden, how it might change my definition of myself, were I to abandon the man who had, for most of my life, held my hand and set my course.”
It’s been four years since Church finished The Atomic Weight of Love. She’s in the enviable territory of having her debut novel feted before it was even released. But she’s already hard at work on a new book that revisits the same era from a completely different vantage point. Switching directions with her next work, Church said she is researching Las Vegas in the late 1960s, a story complete
with showgirls, Rat Pack celebrities such as Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. and a growing civilrights movement.
For now, though, she is quite content to have a writing career at a time when most of her colleagues are proceeding into retirement. Though it is a work of fiction, it is hard to not read this passage in the novel and think of Church’s widowhood and her own late-in-life transformation into a writer: “We have to
take flight. It’s not given to us, served up on a pretty, parsley-bordered platter. We have to take wing. Was I brave enough to do that? Or would I be content to remain earthbound?” — Casey Sanchez
Elizabeth Church reads from “The Atomic Weight of Love” at Collected Works Bookstore (202 Galisteo St., 505-988-4226) at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, May 24.