Summary and book reviews of Atmospheric Disturbances by Rivka Galchen

Atmospheric Disturbances

A Novel

By Rivka Galchen

Atmospheric Disturbances
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  • Hardcover: May 2008,
    256 pages.
    Paperback: Apr 2009,
    256 pages.

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Book Reviewed by:
Lucia Silva

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Book Summary

When Dr. Leo Liebenstein’s wife disappears, she leaves behind a single, confounding clue: a woman who looks, talks, and behaves exactly like her—or almost exactly like her—and even audaciously claims to be her. While everyone else is fooled by this imposter, Leo knows better than to trust his senses in matters of the heart. Certain that the original Rema is alive and in hiding, Leo embarks on a quixotic journey to reclaim his lost love.

With the help of his psychiatric patient Harvey—who believes himself to be a secret agent who can control the weather—Leo attempts to unravel the mystery of the spousal switch. His investigation leads him to the enigmatic guidance of the meteorologist Dr. Tzvi Gal-Chen, the secret workings of the Royal Academy of Meteorology in their cosmic conflict with the 49 Quantum Fathers, and the unwelcome conviction that somehow he—or maybe his wife, or maybe even Harvey—lies at the center of all these unfathomables. From the streets of New York to the southernmost reaches of Patagonia, Leo’s erratic quest becomes a test of how far he is willing to take his struggle against the seemingly uncontestable truth he knows in his heart to be false.

Atmospheric Disturbances is at once a moving love story, a dark comedy, a psychological thriller, and a deeply disturbing portrait of a fracturing mind. With tremendous compassion and dazzling literary sophistication, Rivka Galchen investigates the moment of crisis when you suddenly realize that the reality you insist upon is no longer one you can accept, and the person you love has become merely the person you live with. This highly inventive debut explores the mysterious nature of human relationships, and how we spend our lives trying to weather the storms of our own making.

On a temperate stormy night

Last December a woman entered my apartment who looked exactly like my wife. This woman casually closed the door behind her. In an oversized pale blue purse—Rema’s purse—she was carrying a russet puppy. I did not know the puppy. And the real Rema, she doesn’t greet dogs on the sidewalk, she doesn’t like dogs at all. The hayfeverishly fresh scent of Rema’s shampoo was filling the air and through that brashness I squinted at this woman, and at that small dog, acknowledging to myself only that something was extraordinarily wrong.

She, the woman, the possible dog lover, leaned down to de-shoe. Her hair obscured her face somewhat, and my migraine occluded the edges of my vision, but still, I could see: same unzipping of wrinkly boots, same taking off of same baby blue coat with jumbo charcoal buttons, same tucking behind ears of dyed cornsilk blonde hair. Same bangs cut straight across like on those dolls done up ...

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Introduction
Hailed as a virtuosa storyteller, garnering comparisons ranging from Borges to Murakami, Rivka Galchen has received a level of ebullient acclaim rarely bestowed on debut novelists. Exploring the nature of love, identity, truth, and reality itself, Atmospheric Disturbances is equally funny and fantastical, yet grounded in colorful details capturing the conflicts of daily life.

At the heart of these quandaries is Dr. Leo Liebenstein, his missing wife, Rema, and his psychiatric patient Harvey. The only clue Rema has left behind is an illusion of herself, a cunning simulacra that looks, talks, and behaves just like the real Rema and has fooled everyone but Leo. Attempting to unravel the mystery of spousal replacement, he ...
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Reviews

BookBrowse

Galchen is both playful and serious, and has an impressive instinct for how far she can push the boundaries and how much she can ask of her readers. She constructs beautiful sentences, and uncovers humor inherent in language, reveling in mis-hearings, botched translations, and the allure and poetry of scientific writing just outside the layperson's ken. She makes a completely preposterous premise come alive with equal parts fun and heartache, and is generous with her myriad gifts to the very end. Some readers may find the novel's ambiguous reality unmanageable or unsatisfying, but it's exactly what kept me up late to the last page, and what kept me thinking about its strange world long after I closed the cover.   (Reviewed by Lucia Silva).

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Media Reviews
The Washington Post - Ron Charles

What Galchen has done is play out that sad realization in the mind of a psychotic psychiatrist, a man thoroughly versed in others' delusions but unable to perceive his own.

Time

[A] dense, fractally complex first novel by the conspicuously talented Rivka Galchen.

Entertaiment Weekly - Jennifer Reese

There are passages so achingly beautiful in Rivka Galchen's Atmospheric Disturbances — about love, resilience, and perception — that you will not mind picking through a high-concept narrative that would have worked better as a short story. A-.

Library Journal

Galchen's astonishing debut is rich in detail and scientific exploration and a kind of dreamy psychological dissembling that keeps the reader as baffled as Leo right to the end. This dense, brilliant novel should be much in demand.

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. [An] enthralling debut...don't be surprised if this gives you a Crying of Lot 49 nostalgia hit.

Entertainment Weekly

Achingly beautiful.

Kirkus Reviews

Everything is other than it appears to be in Galchen's assured debut--an intricate puzzle powered by urgently beating heart . . . A superb first novel.

The Economist

His search for Rema starts to lose steam two-thirds of the way in, and the science can get a bit clunky. But the story is genuinely suspenseful, and Leo’s clause-heavy patter feels fresh and wry—his perspective curiously weird—even as he unravels. Ms Galchen is a writer to be watched.

The Independent - Jonathan Gibbs

The English love talking about the weather, but they don't write about it enough. We should feel suitably chastened that it has taken a New Yorker to write this intriguing meteorological novel, in which the weather doesn't just set the scene, but drives the hero's every move ....

Some might bristle at mental illness being co-opted yet again for fashionable metaphors. That aside, this is a diverting and impressive debut.

Reader Reviews
Kim

Exceptionally creative & well-written first novel
This novel isn't your run-of-the-mill missing person mystery. It's a very complex portrait of a man's descent into insanity -- from the viewpoint of the madman who thinks himself sane. Galchen's writing is amazing, and this is a "must-read" for ...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

Capgras Syndrome

The idea of simulacrum, or impostors, has long been a subject of fascination in fiction, and Capgras syndrome, or variations on its symptoms, often crop up in short stories and novels. Most recently, The Echo Maker by Richard Powers revolves around a character who suffers from Capgras syndrome after he suffers a head injury in a car accident.

While the unreliable narrator of Atmospheric Disturbances is constantly evaluating and analyzing himself, he does so with increasingly suspect reasoning, and never touches on the obvious psychological cause for his belief that his wife has been replaced by an impostor.

Capgras syndrome, or Capgras delusion is a rare disorder in which the afflicted ...

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