The first story is Pauline and Clifford’s. It’s the story of a modern, young married woman’s loneliness in her marriage. Pauline loves her self-possessed husband Clifford, and her needy children. Still, she can’t quite find happiness. She married a man who was quiet and distant, only to be disappointed by his solitary nature. Pauline is a frustrating character – she seems to desire movement and change when none is really necessary. Instead of enjoying the different phases of her life, she wishes them away for some other future that isn’t well defined, except for the fact that it isn’t the one she is currently building. Still, her struggles are both commonplace and touching:
But as much as a mother may love her child, the unvarying replay of challenges that need to be mastered during the process of growth and the repetitive schedule can become tiresome. While Jasper worked with all his might to become a toddler, I escaped the monotony of our days together by reading, and during these lapses of vigilance, my son sometimes would fall and cry, get frustrated and cry, miss my attention and cry. (page 131)
What young mother hasn’t felt that way? And yet Pauline seems to think that if she isn’t actively engaged at every moment, something is lost.
The second story is that of Pauline’s historical “crush,” J. Robert “Oppie” Oppenheimer, and his wife Kitty, as Oppenheimer feverishly tried to finish the atomic bomb at Los Alamos, New Mexico, during the final days of the Second World War. Kitty and her young son Peter have been dragged to the middle of the desert by her husband, where isolation and loneliness lead her to alcohol. Maybe it’s the historian in me, but it was this remote story that touched me the most. Kitty’s plight seemed out of her hands, compared with Pauline’s. The circumstances of her husband’s life separated him from almost everyone – even her, the person who had been his closest confidante. She knew enough about her husband’s work to know that she might be waiting for not the end of some annoying childhood phase, but the end of the world as she knew it, which served to make her struggles far more heartbreaking to me, despite the fact that her behavior was in many ways shocking.
Weiss dares the reader to compare the relative ease of our day-to-day existence with the hardships faced by the scientists working at Los Alamos. Their common purpose is extraordinary, although their diligent activity ultimately brings about the worst kind of destruction. How do we judge the result?
I enjoyed this book immensely, although I admit I found it a bit uneven. Both stories were very compelling, but Weiss’ philosophical musings on the meaning of the atomic bomb struck me as too direct – almost like some kind of omniscient Greek chorus. This would be a fabulous book for a book club – I can imagine people reacting to this book completely differently, depending on their age and life experience. I would recommend this book to both lovers of contemporary literature and historical fiction, as well as those who enjoy literature about the Second World War. There is something here for all of those groups.
I read this book as part of a TLC Book Tour, and received a free copy of the book in return for my honest opinion. I hope you’ll visit these other stops on the tour:
Monday, October 10th: Steph and Tony Investigate
Tuesday, October 11th: Col Reads
Wednesday, October 12th: Regular Rumination
Wednesday, October 12th: The Well-Read Wife