Summary and book reviews of The Atomic Weight of Love by Elizabeth Church

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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About this Book

Book Summary

In the spirit of The Aviator's Wife and Loving Frank, this resonant debut spans the years from World War II through the Vietnam War to tell the story of a woman whose scientific ambition is caught up in her relationships with two very different men.

For Meridian Wallace - and many other smart, driven women of the 1940s - being ambitious meant being an outlier. Ever since she was a young girl, Meridian had been obsessed with birds, and she was determined to get her PhD, become an ornithologist, and make her mother's sacrifices to send her to college pay off. But she didn't expect to fall in love with her brilliant physics professor, Alden Whetstone. When he's recruited to Los Alamos, New Mexico, to take part in a mysterious wartime project, she reluctantly defers her own plans and joins him.

What began as an exciting intellectual partnership devolves into a "traditional" marriage. And while the life of a housewife quickly proves stifling, it's not until years later, when Meridian meets a Vietnam veteran who opens her eyes to how the world is changing, that she realizes just how much she has given up. The repercussions of choosing a different path, though, may be too heavy a burden to bear.

Elizabeth Church's stirring debut novel about ambition, identity, and sacrifice will ring true to every woman who has had to make the impossible choice between who she is and who circumstances demand her to be.  

Excerpt
The Atomic Weight of Love

Flight requires defiance of gravity and is really, when you think about it, a bold act."

The professor at the front of the lecture hall paused for dramatic effect, but as far as I could see, I was the only fully engrossed member of the audience. I wasn't enrolled in the class but had instead taken a seat at another professor's suggestion. I was enraptured not only because I felt I was looking at a wild man — someone whose long, tussled hair intimated that he had rushed in from a hike along some windblown cliff to lecture to a bunch of physics students — but more so because I knew he could explain mysteries to me, decipher Newton and the others and render them comprehensible on a practical level. My expectations were high, and Alden Whetstone met them.

"We think about vertebrate flight as falling into four categories: parachuting, gliding, actual flight, and soaring. If a bird can soar, generally speaking, it can also perform the ...

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 ...
Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

Some of the recent comments posted about The Atomic Weight of Love. Join the discussion! You can see the full discussion here.

A Murder of Crows, etc.
I looked forward to the headings not only because they foreshadowed, but also because they underscored the bird theme, giving another dimension to the story. They were charming! - barbm

Compare and contrast the gifts Meridian receives from Alden and from Clay.
Let me preface my answer. I liked Clay and didn't particularly like Alden. Gaudy jewelry and crock pots are not my idea of great gifts from someone who loves me. I'm sure Alden was doing his best. I would melt if my husband of 40 years gave me a book... - jodyp

Did Alden love Meridian? Did Meridian love Alden? How do you know? Did she make the right decision?
I think Alden and Meridian loved each other. I just think that Meridian got married too young and didn't have a clear picture of marriage. She was still learning about herself. Alden was set in his ways with no flexibilty. She later realized this ... - louisee

Discuss Meridian's friendships with Belle and Emma. How do women's friendships illuminate their lives differently than the friendships between men?
I loved Meridian's friendship with Belle because it allowed her to escape the controlled life she had with Alden. While the alcohol fueled part of her rebellion, Belle reenergized Meridian and allowed her to think of herself as more than a housewife... - andreab

General opinion of the book
I loved the book, although, at times, it was maddening. I wanted so much for Meridian to assert her independence at so many different times, but she could not have accomplished what she did in the end without having gone through everything else. I ... - suelizbeth

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

Church has a deep understanding of how marriage works: its constant sacrifices and compromises, and how much we can define ourselves by and depend on our partners. Passages recounting the everyday dilemmas and conversations of a marriage feel very true to life. This would make an excellent book club read. There is so much to think about and discuss – especially relationships, women's rights, and moral decisions.   (Reviewed by Rebecca Foster).

Full Review (734 words).

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Media Reviews

Publishers Weekly

As characters go, Meri is a little too passive, Alden too one-dimensional a domestic tyrant, and Clay too good to be true. Nonetheless, readers will enjoy following Meri's long, vivid journey, which concludes in her 80s.

Booklist

Church's debut will likely strike a chord, especially with women who find that not much has changed in our patriarchal society since Meri's time, and that Meri's story might well be their own.

Kirkus Reviews

An elegant glimpse into the evolution of love and womanhood.

Author Blurb Caroline Leavitt, New York Times bestselling author of Is This Tomorrow and Pictures of You
Oh, what a incandescent debut!... So engrossing, I couldn't wait to read another page, and so alive, I never wanted the story to end.

Author Blurb Tara Conklin, author of The House Girl
This exquisite debut is the beautifully written story of a woman who must negotiate the tricky terrain of love, responsibility, ambition and sacrifice.  In her impeccable portrayal of a long marriage, Elizabeth Church weaves together the historical and the personal and shows the impossible choices women faced - and still face - between family and self.

Reader Reviews

PiperUp

Great Read
This one snuck up on me! I didn't realize how emotionally invested I was until I had tears in my eyes while reading the last chapter. Each chapter is titled after a group of specific birds, "An Exaltation of Larks", "A Murder of Crows...   Read More

Julie F.

We all make choices....
I enjoyed this book. While the characters in the story are a bit one-dimensional, the relationships and interactions make the story come alive. Meri's naïveté, particularle after 20 years of marriage, doesn't match her intelligence. Yet the story ...   Read More

Davida Chazan

Devotion en masse
Meridian is very smart, and she wants to become an ornithologist, something very unusual for a girl growing up in post-WWI in America. With the support of her mother, and knowing she has the blessing of her late father she begins that journey. ...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

Crow Facts and Bird Group Names

Crows generally mate for life In Elizabeth Church's debut novel, The Atomic Weight of Love, Meridian Wallace studies crow behavior over the course of decades. The Corvid family – which includes crows, rooks, magpies, ravens, and jays – is often considered to have the highest intelligence and most remarkable habits in the bird world. Here are some facts that help explain Meri's fascination:

  • Corvids have a high brain to body ratio, nearly as high as primates and cetaceans (whale, dolphin or porpoise).
  • Corvids can be taught to talk.
  • Crows ranging between 100 and hundreds of thousands roost together for protection, warmth, mate finding, and information sharing. In recent years roosts have started to move into urban areas. The birds return to the same ...

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Book Discussion
Book Jacket
The Atomic Weight of Love
by Elizabeth J. Church

In the spirit of The Aviator's Wife, this resonant debut spans from World War II through the Vietnam War.

About the book
Join the discussion!

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