The description of this book promises an older man-younger woman romances based on intellect. It delivers and then some. If you’ve read here for long you know that older man-younger woman romances (not “trophy wives,” but real romance) are my thing! My own books are all built on what I term cross generational romances. I run an occasional series of blog posts on such romances in real life, film and fiction–you can find them by clicking on the terms in the Tag Cloud in the right sidebar. So, on to this great book!
Meridian (yeah, I winced at that, but really odd names in fiction are a pet peeve of mine) or “Meri” as she was often called, is a bright, ambitious young woman arriving at the University of Chicago just in time for the Manhattan Project to start plucking all the great physicists out of their ivory towers and secreting them away in the high desert at Los Alamos, New Mexico–then an unknown and undeveloped afterthought of U.S. geography. But before the fateful envelope arrives in the Physics Department, Meri develops a romance with professor Alden Whetstone (yeah, that one made me wince, too). A fairly typical student-prof romance at first, the young, fatherless girl hangs on her older mentor’s every brilliant word, while the professor looking at the downside of 40 is jazzed to have a fabulously smart young protege who also happens to adore him.
The story really takes off after the war–when Alden and Meridian get married and settle into life in science community at Los Alamos. Meridian finds other wives with science backgrounds and continues, at first, to think she will finish her education and become an ornithologist. Since this is the 1940s we can all make an intelligent guess that this isn’t going to happen. Photo source
For some the words “marriage,” “spouse” and “till death do us part,” quickly stifle passion, growth and freedom. So it was for Meri who seemed to be a 1970s woman caught in a 1940s marriage. But, had there not been such women, we’d not now take for granted that women can be physicists, astronauts, and possibly even POTUS.
My own short-lived marriage came to mind as I read this story. Alden, a man of his time, took for granted that his bright young wife would find magically adjust to a life of baking cakes, playing bridge and ironing boxer shorts. Meridian, though, hungered for intellectual rigor and deep scientific discussions that had fueled their courting passion. Unlike wives in the rest of the USA, she couldn’t be a sounding board for her husband’s work dilemmas because all aspects of his work were highly classified. Her she was, a very capable scientist, drawn to her husband by his brains and now he cannot share with her, cannot teach her about it all now. Her role as his helpmeet was too narrow now, too confining. But, Elizabeth Church’s writing made me feel the emotions of both characters. I could see the times Alden was making an effort and I rejoiced at the times when Meri realized it.
This stifling life of no intellectual challenge is what led to the formation of the women’s movement, to consciousness raising, to the ill-fated E.R.A. and to so much more that women today take 100% for granted. Alden’s aging, his inability to see his wife’s side, his inability to give was matched by Meri’s equal self-centeredness and, in my opinion, her refusal to grow up. What redeemed the story to me was her decision to care for Alden when he became so ill. She even dares to acknowledge a few things about him that were good. I’m glad. No marriage is all bad or all good. This one suffered more from selfishness than many, but in the end there was loyalty and caring. Photo source
Sadly, there was one truly disgusting comment that shouldn’t have been in the book. That chapter was necessary, but it went a bit too far with one observation. But it’s a tiny nano-second of the book. So why mention it? So you won’t throw this otherwise excellent book away because of it. On the positive side, who wouldn’t love a book with chapters named for groupings of birds? A Parliament of Owls, indeed! I loved this. I do wish there had been notebook pages included from Meri’s observations though– her graphs and drawings, that would have been really fun to see.
I hope Elizabeth J. Church has many more novels to come. I can’t wait–that’s how profound this story was. Amazing writing that deserves years of success.