Fifty years after the creation of the atomic bomb at Los Alamos, newlyweds Pauline and Clifford visit that once-secret city on their honeymoon, compelled by Pauline’s fascination with Oppenheimer, the soulful scientist. The two stories emerging from this visit reverberate back and forth between the loneliness of a new mother at home in Boston and the isolation of an entire community dedicated to the development of the bomb. While Pauline struggles with unforeseen challenges of family life, Oppenheimer and his crew reckon with forces beyond all imagining.Susan Weiss makes an interesting comparison between the marriage of two rather ordinary Americans and the process of creating the first atomic bomb. As the chapters in the book bounce back and forth between Oppenheimer's project in Los Alamos and Pauline and Clifford's marriage in modern day Boston, Ms Weiss does a great job of segue-ing between the two situations. The jumps back and forth are so smooth that the reader has to get a few words into each chapter before it becomes apparent which story the chapter will focus on. It is like reading two books that have been so skillfully shuffled together that it is hard to tell where one leaves off and the other begins.
Both stories are very well written. The language is flowing and almost poetic. Very visual. As I read about Pauline and Clifford's efforts to begin their life together and create a cohesive relationship despite their differences, I was transported to their little apartment in Boston. I felt like the fly on the wall as I witnessed the trials and joys of their life together. Pauline's character drove me crazy but I enjoyed this story line in spite of her immaturity. Then, just as I was totally engrossed in what was happening with this story line, the other would intrude.
Surprisingly, life in Los Alamos as the team of scientists worked round the clock to create the weapon so horrible that the very threat of it would bring about world peace, was much more interesting than I had expected. This is not a story nor time in history that I have ever had any interest in, but it was fascinating. I learned so much about the politics of the time and the people involved. Often I found myself wishing that this was the story the author had chosen to write rather than including the other. Again I was totally drawn into the story only to be thrown 'back to the future' to find out how Pauline and Clifford were doing.
At first this back and forth irritated me a little. Then I came to realize that it was partly the comparison between these two, seemingly irreconcilable stories, that kept me interested in both. In the back of my mind, I was always thinking about how the evolution of the bomb was a metaphor for the marriage. With each new discovery or event in one story, I would be trying to draw comparisons with what might be happening in the other. It became a mental game that kept my attention as no football game has ever done. (admittedly I'm not much of a football fan but my husband is so I try. This book was better.)
The only complaint I have is that, on occasion, the writing went a little too far into the metaphor. In one short chapter, especially, the few pages are filled with half sentences chaotically placed. I realize the chapter was supposed to create for the reader the illusion of a bomb blast, but for me it took away from the simple comparison which was so effective in the rest of the book.
'My God What Have We Done?' is not a quick read. It is a thought provoking and emotional study of human nature. Perhaps more suited to a long winter day in front of the fire than it is to the beach, it is definitely a book worth reading - look for it after September 19, 2011.