This novel is profound, and profoundly moving. It’s a long time since I’ve cried so much when reading a book. It follows the life of Meridian Wallace from a childhood marred by the death of her father (of a heart attack at the young age of forty three), to college in Chicago in 1941, to old age in Los Alamos, New Mexico.
Meridian is very bright. She studies biology and plans to become an ornithologist studying crows. But dazzled by the intellect of the much older Alden Whetstone, she finds herself married young. Alden is a physicist who gets a job at Los Alamos working on the atomic bombs that ended WW II. The inevitable happens: Meri moves out to join him and ends up yielding her place at Cornell and her chance of a master’s degree. In the 1950’s this was so much more inevitable than it is today, but the masculine assumption that it will be so still hurts. Alden often displays the kind of classic male superiority complete with derogatory put downs that featured in Fay Weldon’s early work. The kind of thing that would have you throwing the book across the room and saying to yourself “Yes. That’s exactly how they do it.” Meri is no shrinking violet, but it’s a case of one woman against the patriarchy, so guess who wins?
Salvation of a sort comes when she meets Clay, a young geologist and Vietnam vet. They fall deeply in love, despite the age difference, and Meri has her own sexual revolution. She is set to follow him to Berkeley and resume her studies when Alden becomes very ill. It’s terminal, and Meri can’t in good conscience abandon him. Author Elizabeth Church makes us see that life is complicated. Meri sees that Alden loved her as best he could. So: men are just as much victims of patriarchy.
In her eighties, Meridian sets up an organisation called Wingspan, which helps young women broaden their horizons. And every birthday she receives thoughtful gifts from the now-married Clay. She boxes up her crow journals; the ones she kept during the earlier years of her marriage, and sends them to him.
This is a story that will resonate with many women, particularly those of us old enough to have been faced with these kinds of choices. It’s a beautifully written book, complex and deft. These are issues our societies still need to sort out.