In Jennie Fields’ Cold War novel Atomic Love, a once brilliant scientist, who was fired from the Manhattan Project, finds herself wrestling with intense and conflicting emotions when an ex-colleague and former lover suddenly comes back into her life and the FBI pressures her to get close to him again.
Chicago, 1950. Rosalind Porter has always defied expectations – in her work as a physicist on the Manhattan Project to design the atomic bomb, and in her passionate love affair with coworker Thomas Weaver.
Five years after the end of both, her guilt over the results of her work and her heartbreak over Weaver are intertwined. She has almost succeeded in resigning herself to a more conventional life . . .
Then Weaver gets back in touch. But so does the FBI. Agent Charlie Szydlo wants Rosalind to spy on Weaver, whom the FBI suspects of selling nuclear secrets to Russia. As Rosalind’s final assignment launches her on a dangerous mission to find the truth, she faces a heartbreaking choice . . .
Rosalind Porter’s character was inspired by Leona Woods, one of the physicists who worked with Enrico Fermi, who also serves as Rosalind and Weaver’s boss on the Manhattan Project in Atomic Love. (Although it has to be said, Rosalind is very much the author’s creation and not designed to be read as a fictionalised version of Leona here.)
It’s refreshing to read about a protagonist who is an intelligent and capable woman. Rosalind not only holds her own in what was then an overly male-dominated world, let alone work environment, but also makes a tangible contribution to it. We only see this part of her life in flashback as she relives memories of that time but I came away with a real sense of her passion for physics, her brilliant mind and how she thrived in such a rarefied environment working alongside others at the cutting edge of science.
When we meet Rosalind, it’s 1950, five years since she was unceremoniously dumped by her lover and the Manhattan Project. Still reeling from the fallout in more ways than one, she’s drifting through life and far removed from her beloved world of science. She’s just managing to maintain her lakeshore apartment but that’s proving harder now that she’s working behind the jewellery counter of a Chicago department store.
It’s not easy to see Rosalind in this new life, knowing that she’s not only been forced to leave a stimulating and challenging career but also had a passionate love affair end abruptly. Rosalind seems so reduced and adrift now in comparison, although, as we discover, she’s not alone in feeling that way. I felt her sense of loss keenly, wanted to rail about the unfairness of it all on her behalf while also guiltily grateful to be of a later generation.
When her former colleague and lover suddenly comes back into her life, their renewed contact generates interest within the FBI, which suspects Weaver of betraying rather more than Rosalind’s heart. While she grapples with complex feelings of attraction and repulsion towards him (a nice nod to her background in physics), Rosalind also tries to balance how much of what she knows against what she tells her FBI handler, Agent Charlie Szydlo.
This already sensitive situation becomes increasingly fraught with tension, the more time they spend together and the better they get to know each other. And no matter how clever she is, Rosalind is a civilian in a high-stakes game of espionage with the outcome as dangerous and likely to spin out of control and obliterate her and everything around her, as the nuclear reactor she helped build when she witnessed it go critical for the first time.
I loved that there was more than a passing reference to Rosalind’s background in physics and involvement in experiments conducted with the atom. It works surprisingly well within this love story and tale of Cold War secrets and resonates, giving Atomic Love an extra frisson of excitement and danger. It adds to the impression that the characters—and the world they live in—are standing on the edge of a precipice. Things could combust and spiral out of control at any second with feelings running as high as the stakes involved and being every bit as taut.
Even if at times the romance feels slightly overblown, I liked that Rosalind operates on her own terms here, as much as the men in her life do. There’s a real push and pull between Rosalind, Weaver, and especially Charlie, and the way they react to, and interact with each other, their family members and, to a lesser extent, their colleagues. Again, Rosalind’s past work and her confused feelings about it seem to be reflected in the relationships within the book. Atomic Love not only shows how destructive and damaging a weapon it can be in the wrong hands but also how much more potential it has when harnessed as a positive force for good.
Atomic Love is a highly-charged love story and tale of intrigue set against the backdrop of the Cold War and the nuclear arms race, and one I really enjoyed reading. I willed Rosalind on, hoping she could outwit and outlive the traitorous forces closing in around her and for her head and her heart to find the right way through all her confusion and find a way to heal.
Atomic Love by Jennie Fields is published by Michael Joseph, a Penguin Random House imprint. It is available as an audiobook, ebook and in hardback. You can find it at Amazon UK or buy it instead from Hive where every purchase you make helps to support your local independent bookshop. You can find Jennie Fields on her Facebook Page or on Twitter.
My thanks to the publisher who provided a review copy via NetGalley.