My God, What Have We Done? by Susan V. Weiss
Fomite, September 2011
Trade Paperback, 496 pages
Fomite, September 2011
Trade Paperback, 496 pages
In a world afflicted with war, toxicity, and hunger, does what we do in our private lives really matter?
Fifty years after the creation of the atomic bomb at Los Alamos, newlyweds Pauline and Clifford visit that once-secret city on their honeymoon, compelled by Pauline's fascination with Oppenheimer, the soulful scientist.
The two stories emerging from this visit reverberate back and forth between the loneliness of a new mother at home in Boston and the isolation of an entire community dedicated to the development of the bomb. While Pauline struggles with unforeseen challenges of family life, Oppenheimer and his crew reckon with forces beyond all imagining. Finally the years of frantic research on the bomb culminate in a stunning test explosion that echoes a rupture in the couple's marriage. Against the backdrop of a civilization that's out of control, Pauline begins to understand the complex, potentially explosive physics of personal relationships. At once funny and dead serious, My God, What Have We Done? sifts through the ruins left by the bomb in search of a more worthy human achievement.
In My God, What Have We Done? author Susan V. Weiss draws comparisons between two seemingly diverse events: the modern day marriage of an average couple, Pauline and Clifford, to J. Robert Oppenheimer's development of the atomic bomb in Los Alamos, New Mexico. Chapters from events in one time period and storyline will be reflected in some manner in chapters featuring the other.
Both narratives are well written and given careful consideration. They become not only a reflection of relationships but also serve as powerful character studies of human nature. Taking two very different stories and slowly building and shaping a correlation between them turned what could have been simply a clever plot device into a viable honest comparison. The making of the bomb is not just a metaphor for the marriage in the book, but is a viable narrative in and of itself. While Weiss doesn't beat you over the head with the comparisons (and I did feel a few times the comparison was a slight stretch) it was the juxtaposition of what felt like coincidental similarities in two very different stories that gave the novel interest.
I was drawn into both stories and eager to find out what happened next. Having read Bird's biography of Oppenheimer, I knew his story. (Note: Weiss has a list of her sources at the end of the novel, always a plus for me.) What surprised me was how much I enjoyed this version of part of the story as well as the tale/comparison to a modern marriage. Do we ever consider the future consequences of our actions, however simple or well meaning?
One fact that struck me early on when reading My God, What Have We Done? is that Weiss is an excellent writer. It really rather begged the question "Why wasn't this novel picked up by a major publisher?" If you by-pass this novel based on its publisher, you will be missing a great novel. I'm actually honestly surprised at how much I truly enjoyed his novel.
Disclosure: I was provided a copy of this book for review purposes.
For our honeymoon, my husband and I went to Los Alamos National Laboratory, birthplace of the atomic bomb. opening
Clifford took two or three photographs of me standing beside the Los Alamos National Laboratory sign, grinning as jubilantly as I should have been in our wedding pictures. pg. 18
"We show a film here that'll give you a sense of what life in Los Alamos was like in hose days. Better hurray. It started a minute or two ago." pg. 20
The movie concluded with the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima by the Enola Gay. My wedding ring felt uncomfortably tight, so I began to rotate it around my finger. I glanced at Clifford and just then heard the co-pilot's legendary reaction to the explosion: "Oh my God, what have we done?" pg. 23
Soon after Clifford and I had begun dating, we went to an experimental theater performance in Philadelphia about the life of J. Robert Oppenheimer. pg. 24
This wasn't exactly a memory that I would willingly preserve or recount to our children. In fact I tried to forget the awkwardness of the scene and hoped that it wasn't predictive of a shared lifetime of miscommunication - miscues, retractions. pg. 32
Most of the books on his two bookshelves had been with him for years and never been subject to any kind of purge. pg. 46
So in 1942 Oppenheimer led them - the strange pairing of military men and academics - to that same corner of the country, and when they arrived at the mesa, all of them recognized it as the site they'd been seeking: surrounded by a margin of isolation, forlorn by human interest and separating distant residents from the bomb that would one day be tested. pg. 49
Never in my life had I felt as worthless, wicked, and unclean as during those times when I was in the market for a job. pg. 206
"Tragedy can bring people together, so they say." she paused. "But it can just as well drive them apart, you know." pg. 301
Again our history was being shaped by what we didn't do more than by what we did. pg. 429
Susan Weiss is a writer and a teacher who lives in Burlington, Vermont. Her stories have appeared in literary magazines and anthologies. In addition to teaching adult literacy and expository and creative writing, she has initiated community-outreach writing projects for offenders, refugees, and homeless people.
Visit Susan at her website, susanvweiss.com.
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