Review of “The Atomic Weight of Love” by Elizabeth J. Church

This engrossing book is about a would-be ornithologist in the 1940’s, Meridian (“Meri”) Wallace, who, while a student at the University of Chicago, meets physicist Alden Whetstone (twenty years Meri’s senior), and agrees to give up her dreams to follow his. By no means an uncommon decision at that time, we follow Meri through the years as she struggles with the balance of her own needs and living the life Alden has chosen for them.


Each chapter begins with ornithological terms of venery that mirror the chapters’ developments, allowing us to understand the characters by the behavior of the birds Meridian studies.

Discussion: The writing is exceptional. One of my favorite examples is when Meri first sleeps with Alden:

“That single careful gesture – the controlled placement of his pants. It told me something I refused to acknowledge: Alden would always be too careful. There would be no transport for me, not with a man who was that precise in the face of impending passion. Passion walks the edge of control, teasing. It looks down at the rocks in a canyon and contemplates plunging, taking one fatal step to the right. It soars, having released the weight of consciousness of all but the moment.”

As we read about the life of Meri and of other women at Los Alamos, where she and Alden settle, we see the different ways in which relationships change over time. Some “die a slow, incremental death of boredom resentment, and lassitude.” Some, though “solid and unwavering,” are nevertheless devoid of passion. And some continue to provide enduring and lasting happiness even in spite of relationships with others.

Important questions are raised by this examination of relationships: Why do we choose one another? What do we owe one another? What are reasonable responses to disappointments in another person?

Evaluation: This is a story that at turns is lovely, tragic, uplifting, defeating, inspiring, and above all, perhaps, stimulating: both in terms of intellectual content and thought-provoking characterizations. This book will have you considering the weight of love and life-changing choices long after you have finished the book and thrown out your crumpled kleenexes. It is perfect for book clubs.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, a division of Workman Publishing, 2016

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5 Responses to Review of “The Atomic Weight of Love” by Elizabeth J. Church

  1. Jeanne says:

    The passage you quote reminds me of what Jenny, in Anne Tyler’s Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, says about her first husband. As you say, this kind of relationship is dated. My daughter’s generation of women won’t even consider compromising their own plans to follow someone they’re dating. I don’t know if this will change any as they get older.

  2. I’ve now seen this on several blogs. It seems to be picking up momentum. It definitely looks interesting.

  3. stacybuckeye says:

    I’m adding it to my list.

  4. Diane D says:

    I love stories that examine relationships. I think I’ll try this at some point.

  5. Pingback: Elizabeth J. Church – The Atomic Weight of Love | Fyrefly's Book Blog

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