Author: Jennie Fields
Setting: Chicago, 1950
Genre: Historical Fiction
Published: Published August 2020 by G.P. Putnam’s Sons
Summary: Five years after her work on the Manhattan Project and her romance with fellow scientist Thomas Weaver ended in catastrophe, Rosalind Porter, the heroine of Atomic Love, lives in Chicago and works behind a jewelry counter. At the request of FBI agent Charlie Szydlo, Rosalind agrees to spy on her former lover who is now expected of selling atomic secrets to Russian spies.
I received an advanced copy of this novel from the publisher via NetGalley in return for a candid review. This review does not contain spoilers.
In the first chapter or so, I thought I had a handle on the tone of Atomic Love. The number of times heroine Rosalind remarks on the color of FBI Agent Charlie Szydlo’s eyes in a single paragraph clued me in—this, I thought, was a romance novel masquerading as women’s fiction. As someone who adores and defends the romance genre whenever possible, this was by no means a detrimental assumption. But, as I kept reading, I found none of the charms of romance. Nor did I find the tension of noir, which often uses romance tropes to deliver subversive messages about society. Instead, Atomic Love sort of split the difference, becoming too dour to be a satisfying romance and too conventional to be an engrossing noir.
The author certainly does not shy away from heavy themes. The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagaski. Japanese prisoner of war camps. Geopolitics at a time when authoritarianism was happening at home and abroad. But the characters and prose Fields crafts aren’t weighty enough to bear this history. This is a novel where people say whatever pops into their head, usually in the most dramatic way possible. This is a novel where “Noooooo!” is rendered on the page (six o’s in no—I counted). This is a novel where the romantic lead–despite the attempt at a love triangle, we know he’s the romantic lead because we get his point of view–thinks things like, “Women. He’s so bad at this,” but his base-level misogyny is fine because he loves his sister and has a comically evil ex.
There are some nice historical touches and Rosalind, though she never gets to do any science on-page, does maintain a love for it. The author’s note makes it clear that the novel is meant as a celebration of female scientists and the city of Chicago, and those aspects do come across. Though not enough to make up for the tonal inconsistencies and lack of tension. This is not a subtle novel. It’s the kind of story I could see working okay on screen with actors good enough to sell the illusion of characters thinking deeply about the traumatic and weighty subject matter (or going the opposite direction and selling an effervescent pastiche of it). Not so much when we’re in the characters’ heads realizing there’s nothing going on under the surface.