Changing Light / Nora Gallagher
I've just read this unusual book; an unusual one for me for the simple fact that I had not heard anything about it before reading it. I hadn't heard anything about the author before, had not seen any prepublication information, hadn't heard anyone talking about it at all. So I came to it utterly fresh. When I saw it and read through the first few paragraphs, I thought, I must read this. And I am so glad I did.
The novel tells the story of Eleanor Garrigue, a painter living in New Mexico in the 40's. She lives half the year alone there, and the other half with her domineering husband in New York. (like Persephone, she thinks.) In 1945 there was also a large concentration of scientists living in New Mexico, in Los Alamos, working on the atomic bomb (or 'the gadget' as they call it.) One of the scientists, Dr. Leo Kavan, leaves the compound after an accident which kills one of his coworkers, and he himself receives a dose of radiation poisoning, the effect of which he can not calculate. He runs in the night, and one morning Eleanor finds him beside the river, ill and incoherent. She takes him home to recuperate, and they are so drawn to one another that they eventually become lovers. I particularly liked the characterization of Eleanor and Leo. Both of their backstories were well developed, leaving us with rich, identifiable people. A few of the other characters were not so fully drawn. With Eleanor representing Art, Leo representing Science, and Eleanor's friend Father Bill representing Religion, there are many discussions and parallels drawn between their respective work. Eleanor and Leo are both "changing light" through their work. For me, the title also evokes one of Proust's observations, that a change of light can change your perspective on something just as much as might a change of locale. Leo, especially, experiences this as he comes to realize the human toll likely to result from the destructive capability of the bomb he has helped create. His desire is to put the genie back in the bottle, but all his attempts to recommend this are brought to naught as finally, the US government wants to use the bomb to "get it's money's worth" from the research they have been funding.
Meanwhile, back at the compound, people are wondering where Dr. Kavan has got to. Through Father Bill, one of the Los Alamos men, David Stein, discovers Leo's whereabouts and tracks him down. After all the anxiety about this very event, the result is rather weak, or anti-climactic. Recognizing that Leo and Eleanor are in love, much as he is with his wife, David lets Leo go, to continue his attempt to contact the President in order to ask him not to use the bomb.
But I enjoyed this book very much. The flaws were small; sometimes Gallagher was a bit heavy-handed with her views, putting speeches into the character's mouths rather than letting things reveal themselves organically. When Leo says that using the bomb would be "a crime against humanity" I wondered whether that was a phrase in common parlance in 1945. However, this was a unique presentation of a part of history I haven't read much about, and it was irresistible. Gallagher is strongest when describing New Mexico itself (her childhood home) and when describing Eleanor's interior life. This book begins on Easter Weekend, 1945, and talks about war, about destruction, and yet about resurrection, both of hopes and of love. A timely, thought-provoking read. Recommended.
*Something I wasn't aware of before searching out more information about this book; the characters are loosely based on real people. Eleanor on Georgia O'Keeffe, Leo Kavan on Hungarian scientist Leo Szilard, and David on David Greenglass, Soviet spy and brother of Ethel Rosenberg. It didn't make any difference to the reading though; it's wonderful whether or not you might know anything about these people.