Reading guide for The Atomic Weight of Love by Elizabeth Church

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The Atomic Weight of Love

by Elizabeth Church

The Atomic Weight of Love by Elizabeth Church
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  • First Published:
    May 2016, 320 pages
    Paperback:
    Mar 2017, 368 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Rebecca Foster

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Reading Guide Questions Print Excerpt

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

  1. From a young age, Meridian has a dream, a driving desire to become an ornithologist. Her dream—involving the study of hard science—is unusual for a girl of her time. In what ways does her father's influence, both before and after his death, affect her dream?
  2. Meridian's mother makes sacrifices to help her daughter reach the University of Chicago, where Meridian can pursue her studies. Yet, later in the book, she writes a letter to her daughter (pages 128–29) in which she seems to reverse her support of Meridian's ambition. What do you think about the marital advice she gives her daughter, and what motivations do you think underlie that advice?
  3. Meridian makes a concerted effort to follow her father's advice, which is to "make do." She adapts. When is adaptation a reasonable response? When does adaptation cross the line and become self-abnegation? Is sacrifice noble? What is "noble," and what is inappropriate martyrdom?
  4. Meridian falls for Alden's intellect and the challenge he provides for her eager, bright mind. He accepts her—at least at the start—as an intellectual equal, and he seems not to limit her because she is a woman. If love, as they say, is blind, how do we ever see the beloved accurately, beyond the images we create of the person we want to see?
  5. At the party Meridian and Alden host for other physicists and their wives (pages 130–35), Meridian feels left out, marooned, as if she doesn't fit in—even in her own home. Have you ever felt stranded between the world of women and that of men? Do women and men fall into gender groups at social gatherings among your friends? What do you think drives this sort of self-segregation? Do you regularly socialize with people of the opposite sex?
  6. What gifts and challenges does Belle's friendship bring to Meridian? How does Meridian's friendship with Belle differ from her later friendship with Emma? How do women's friendships illuminate their lives differently than the friendships between men?
  7. Why do you think the author chose to take Belle from Meridian? How does Belle's death alter Meridian's life, teach her, or challenge her?
  8. What do Meridian's observations of crows, of their relationships and communal behaviors, teach her about her own life? How do the crows both mirror characters' lives and provide an instructive contrast to them?
  9. Clay is Meridian's catalyst. In what ways does he spur her to challenge her definitions of male-female relationships, the boundaries she has drawn in her life? What or who have been catalysts in your life? How did they change you or cause you to view things differently?
  10. The women's movement helped to bring women accurate information about their bodies and their sexuality. How does Meridian's growing knowledge of herself as a sexual being change who she is, who she thinks she might become?
  11. Compare and contrast the gifts Meridian receives from Alden and from Clay. What significance do those gifts have? What do they say about the giver, about his feelings toward Meridian and what he wants for her?
  12. Did Alden love Meridian? Did Meridian love Alden? How do you know? Discuss Meridian's choice to let go of Clay and instead to stay with Alden. What does she mean when she says that leaving Alden "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" (page 287)? Did she make the right decision?
  13. What significance does Marvella's struggle to attend the college of her choice have in the novel? What does Marvella teach Meridian?
  14. Meridian creates Wingspan, and in so doing she helps to shape the futures of scores of girls and young women. How can we find fulfillment later in life, when perhaps long-held dreams are no longer possible?
  15. Meridian is resilient; she comes back from the blows of life and stands tall once again. How do we help our daughters to become resilient women, women who can endure the hard knocks of life and still thrive? Is this possible only through pain and loss?
  16. What does the setting of Los Alamos add to the story? In what ways does the setting affect Meridian's choices, the direction of her life? What might her life have been had she stayed in Pennsylvania or Chicago? How does the setting of your own life affect choices you make?
  17. Meridian is a careful, quiet observer of the natural world—of the changing of leaves, of hawks in snow, of birds, and of landscape. How has her way of being in the natural world affected you as a reader? Are you more aware of the animals that surround you each day, of the landscape in which you live your life? What have you seen today that you might not have seen before reading this novel?

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Algonquin Books. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.

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