The Wives of Los Alamos: A Novel
TaraShea Nesbit, 2014
Book Review by Molly Lundquist
In luminous, at times poetic prose, TaraShea Nesbit has produced a small gem of a book as she imagines life for the women at famed Los Alamos. The women lived there, in the desert, from 1943 to the end of World War II while their physicists husbands built the first atomic bomb.
Smart, well educated, often professionals in their own right, the women are confined to ramshackle houses, raising children and complaining about dust and muddy water. They resent the secrecy which keeps them in ignorance of what their husbands are working on.
The real story, though, is not bomb building but community building: how a group of strangers, plunked down in the desert, developed close friendships and a network of information and help-when-needed.
We were a group of people connecting...to shared conditions of need, agitation, and sometimes joy, which is to say: we were a community.
Cut off from civilization's watchful eyes (university presidents or department heads), they take "liberties," wearing jeans and tossing out their white tablecloths. They throw boisterous parties—drunken bacchanals as the press would have it. Even letters from home ask if what they'd read about was true:
Do you ever go to those parties?
Aunt, Hilda! Don't be silly! ...
But of course they do go to those parties.
When the bomb is dropped on Hiroshima, the women learn what their husbands had been up to for the past three years. Some are horrified, some elated and proud, but everyone is relieved the war is over. They can go home now...except that in taking their leave, they leave a part of themselves behind.
Nesbit takes a risk with point of view: she tells her story using a very unusual "we." Rather than move us back and forth among five or six individual lives, Nesbit has us follow everyone simultaneously. While at first strange, almost distancing, the gamble pays off—at some point, we readers become "we" the women.
I love this book; though not plot-based, it's a beautiful, at times humorous, read. Nesbit conveys the closeness, and the claustrophobia, of a small isolated community—which comes to learn it has been part of a project that altered the course of history.
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