If you’re looking for refreshing, stylistically bold historical fiction, look no further. The Wives of Los Alamos*, TaraShea Nesbit’s debut novel, is the book for you.
[Full disclosure: Ms. Nesbit and I share friends in common, but we have never met.]
Written from the unconventional first-person plural perspective, The Wives of Los Alamos explores the difficult transition from the ordinary world to the extremely secretive world of the Los Alamos site of the Manhattan Project. Leaving behind their families, friends, and often careers of their own, the women married to the scientists who created the atomic bomb gradually form a community in the desert.
At first the choice of the first-person plural threw me; I was expecting a standard interconnected-threads type of novel, following maybe three or four women through their time at Los Alamos. Instead, I found Ms. Nesbit’s approach simultaneously universal and intimate, emphasizing both the common struggle to adapt to new living conditions and the idiosyncrasies of particular women.
At first, the women focus on the physical isolation and practical problems of life in New Mexico: no automatic washing machines or bathtubs, often inadequate supplies at the commissary — and the inability to visit with parents or even children old enough to attend college. And of course their husbands are sequestered in the labs, unable to discuss anything about their work. As time goes on, strain mounts as the wives negotiate the complex web of relationships they’ve developed — with each other, with their husbands, with the men guarding them, with the women hired to help them around the house, with their own children — and, finally, as they come to understand the awesome destructive force their husbands have constructed.
In addition to the well-articulated historical detail, I loved the roundness of the portraiture in The Wives of Los Alamos. While attesting to the scenic grandeur of the surroundings and the occasional pleasures of solitude, Ms. Nesbit doesn’t sugarcoat the realities of the women’s isolated lives, or their own blindness when it comes to the lives of their maids, often women of color. The women’s reactions to the revelation of the atomic bomb are mixed in tone, and treated thoughtfully. There are no easy answers, no neat endings — but that’s part of what makes this such a fascinating novel.
*My thanks to Bloomsbury for providing me with a review copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.