The Wives of Los Alamos by Tarashea Nesbit, Bloomsbury, 234 pages
Many books, both fiction and non-, have been written about the secrecy of Los Alamos during World War II, when scientists there built and tested the first atomic bomb. Among the most well-known are Jennet Conant’s 109 East Palace: Robert Oppenheimer and the Secret City of Los Alamos; Los Alamos by Joseph Kanon; Frank Waters’ Woman at Otowi Crossing; and The House at Otowi Bridge by Peggy Pond Church. All shed light — through historical research and carefully observed detail — on a time of transformative social and personal change, tying together small, human stories with larger events happening in the Southwest, in the United States, and around the world. The Wives of Los Alamos, by first-time novelist Tarashea Nesbit, joins this canon. The intimate yet artfully distanced narrative about women who came to The Hill with their scientist husbands incorporates elements of poetry, reportage, montage, and assemblage into its prose.
The Wives of Los Alamos has no specific protagonist, and the only antagonist is secrecy. The wives know they have had to move to this unlikely location because of their husbands’ work and that it is part of the war effort, but that is all they are told. Most of them are young, under 30, with small children or pregnant when they arrive, or soon afterward. The book’s chapters cover topics such as cooking troubles, cocktail parties, household help, sex, and women in the workplace. Though some individual first names are offered, keeping track of them isn’t necessary. Nesbit gets at their lives in the collective, speaking for the group, as a group, avoiding the first person while utilizing its strong narrative through-line.
“We had degrees from Mount Holyoke, as our grandmothers did, or from a junior college, as our fathers insisted. We had doctorates from Yale; we had coursework from MIT and Cornell: we were certain we could discover for ourselves just where we would be moving,” she writes.
This structure has the potential to be overly simple, needlessly complex, or too precious, but Nesbit doesn’t fall into any of those traps. She writes with grace and mounting depth, creating nuance and shadows in a story that is both tenderhearted and no-nonsense. Wives cheated on their husbands, or fell deeply in love with their husbands. Wives were kind to the local women who cleaned their homes, or were gleeful in expressing their prejudice and disdain, or they acted one way with the help and another way with the other wives. Wives longed to go back to where they came from, or wanted to stay in New Mexico. Wives feared what their husbands were making, or resented it, or they were proud of it, or they didn’t want to care anymore. Nesbit covers a multitude of possibilities and different women without resorting to lists or generalizations.
The prose lulls and then startles, flows and then pulls up short with tension before diffusing itself with something light, much the way the wives dealt with inner turmoil over their temporary, half-understood living situation. The book is an immersive experience that feels, in hindsight, more like a collection of monologues than a novel using a collective voice. It’s an interesting and beautiful achievement.
Tarashea Nesbit reads from and signs copies of “The Wives of Los Alamos” at Collected Works Bookstore (202 Galisteo St. 505-988-4226) at 6 p.m. on Monday, March 10.