The Wives of Los Alamos by TaraShea Nesbit
Over the last six months, I’ve seen TaraShea Nesbit’s The Wives of Los Alamos pop up on various book lists and recommendation websites, but I was not overly drawn to it. Initially, I thought it was non-fiction, which intrigued me a bit, but after realizing it was fictional, it just never made my ever-expanding reading list. And then, the worst happened. It was midnight; I was wide awake and bookless. The horror! After checking my library holds and realizing I was quite a ways down on all of my wait lists, I started perusing the “now available” books and this one popped up. Figuring I had nothing to lose, I downloaded it and then stayed up way to late immersed in the lives of the women who populated the newly created town of Los Alamos.
As their scientist husbands were called upon by the US government to work on a special project in the desert of the southwest, these women and their families were uprooted and packed along for the ride. It was a ride that would take them to a make-shift city where their families could not visit, their letters were read and censored and where a husband’s status determined the housing provisions. Removed from the world they knew, these wives who used to serve tea in academic circles and having nightly dinners with their husbands suddenly find themselves donning jeans, shopping in a commissary and when their husbands actually made it home for dinner, finding them mute when it came to anything work related.
While some may have had inklings of what was going on behind the closed and guarded doors where their husbands went to work each day, none expected to go down in history as a part of the town where nuclear bombs were first brought into existence.
Some people may be turned off by the first-person plural point of view that carries throughout the entire novel, thinking it feels a bit removed and “royal,” but I thought it did just the opposite, making the reader a part of the ups and downs of the unique living situation into which these women were forced. By telling the tales of various women through a “we” narration, the reader feels what it is like to be frustrated with the situation, mentally placing themselves among these women, rather than glancing in from the outside. (I do wonder though, how a male reader would feel about the very female-oriented telling of the story. It might be a much harder literary choice for men to get on board with, since it permeates the entire novel, making it quite exclusionary when it comes to audience.)
Surprisingly, I found a lot of parallels between the lives of these women who moved to Los Alamos and my own. The US Foreign Service is also an organization that uproots families (although by choice), removing them from loved ones at home, making them miss births and birthdays, holidays and homecomings. It is a world where housing is assigned and problems with housing are funneled through the employee’s workplace. Spouses are thrown into a new living situation, some prospering, some merely surviving and others throwing in the towel when the whole thing becomes too much. While it seems like odd to draw a comparison between the US’s nuclear weapons creation program and that of their Foreign Service, I did feel a certain attachment and understanding for what these women were facing.
It didn’t take more than a handful of pages for this book to catch my full attention, drawing me into the lives of a group of women who followed their husbands, for better or worse. TaraShea Nesbit’s The Wives of Los Alamos easily earned a solid: