The Wives of Los Alamos: A Novel
by TaraShea Nesbit

Bloomsbury USA, 2014. ISBN 978-1-620-40503-1.
Reviewed by Barbara Heming
Posted on 12/23/2014

Fiction: Historical; Fiction: Literary

In 1943 a secret town was built on a high mesa northwest of Santa Fe, New Mexico. Top scientists came to Los Alamos to work on a covert project that resulted in the explosion of the first atomic bomb over Hiroshima three years later. In her novel, The Wives of Los Alamos, TaraShea Nesbit tells the story of the community formed in that clandestine town by the wives who left careers and families to accompany their husbands to the desert.

Nesbit's novel traces the experience of the wives over the three years of their residence in Los Alamos. Often an author will choose representative members of a group to tell the story of the whole. Nesbit makes a different choice. Her narrative style, narrating in the first person plural, may be disconcerting to some readers, but it is an appropriate choice to convey the story of a community with all its similarities and differences without focusing on specific individuals. An example:

We were a group of people connecting both honestly and dishonestly, appearing composed at dusk and bedraggled at daybreak, committed, whether we wanted it or not, to shared conditions of need, agitation, and sometimes joy, which is to say: we were a community.

In describing the wives and their experience, Nesbit often relates an incident or a characteristic, then follows it with a different view introduced by the conjunctions "and" or "or":

We were round-faced, athletic, boisterous, austere, thin-boned, catlike, and awkward... We married men just like our fathers, or nothing like them, or only the best parts... Not all of us were born in America and not all of us knew the academic world...

After the first few pages, Nesbit's narrative style drew me in. The use of anaphora (in this case, the repetition of we, and, and or) creates a poetic rhythm that carries the reader along.

Although over the course of the novel, one becomes familiar with some wives—Louise, Starla, Ingrid, Katherine—no one woman is more important or more delineated than the others. Nesbit establishes a narrative distance that allows the reader an overall view of the community of women in Los Alamos. This seems an apt choice to describe life in an artificially created secret town isolated on a mesa in the high desert, separated from the rest of the world.

In many ways, life on the Hill was the same day again and again. Yet, in this closed-off community, small misunderstandings could quickly become melodrama. A couple of surely innocent details reported to one person became a subplot worthy of Tolstoy, a subplot written and rewritten by other members of the town. If a few facts had to be overlooked for the purposes of good storytelling, they would be.

The Wives of Los Alamos is a fascinating look into life on the Hill and how the women coped with hardships, relationships, and families in a community steeped in secrets and cut-off from the outside world during a critical moment in our history.

TaraShea Nesbit's The Wives of Los Alamos was chosen as a New York Times Editors' Choice, a Barnes and Noble Discover selection, an Indies Next Pick, an Indies Best Debut, and is a finalist for two New Mexico-Arizona Book Awards. A graduate of The Ohio State University and Washington University in St. Louis, Nesbit's writing has been featured in The Guardian, The Iowa Review, Quarterly West, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere. She teaches creative writing and literature at the University of Denver, where she is completing her PhD in Literature and Creative Writing, and serves as the nonfiction editor for Better: Culture & Lit. She grew up in Dayton, Ohio, a lesser-known Manhattan Project location, and presently resides in Boulder, Colorado. You can learn more about her and The Wives of Los Alamos on her website.

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