In Other Words

The Atomic Weight of Love by El­iz­a­beth J. Church

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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.

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