Scintillating marital drama set at a nuclear testing station in the late 1950s.
Paul Collier is an enlisted man who grew up poor and gambles that a new career as a nuclear operator will pay off and be worth uprooting his family from the West Coast to Idaho; he hardly cares if the experimental reactor’s success means American missiles will be able to “hit pay dirt…if the Soviets did anything stupid”—just one of the sore points between him and his wife, Natalie, a California girl whose outspokenness and nonconformity captured him when they were dating but in his current position make him uneasy. Her husband's soldierly reticence about his colleagues' behavior on and off the test site backfires and drives Nat into a more-than-confiding friendship with a local cowboy named Esrom. Readers are also treated to the hilarious musings of Jeannie Richards—the wife of Paul’s new boss, Mitch; her job is to keep her scurrilous silver-haired spouse from botching his retirement payout. Williams keeps the narrative interest percolating with great period details and by allowing her characters' thoughts and emotions full expression—Jeannie lays out battle dress before a dinner welcoming her husband’s new man (“a bra that would catapult her little ladies upward like rocket boosters”), but Mitch himself keeps undermining her Borgia-esque ambitions. Paul’s buttoned-up personality frustrates the hell out of Nat, but her daredevil nature, even as a mother of young children, confounds him more: "He'd had to sit by and watch strangers cheer her on for something he'd not wanted her to do, as if their approval was more important than his concern.” Meantime, plunked alongside potato fields and cattle ranches, other reactors (human and atomic) threaten to blow their stacks. Spoiler alert: a major mishap is all but promised in the prologue, and the afterword describing the nation's only fatal accident at a reactor will send some readers to look up Idaho’s role in American nuclear history.
A smoldering, altogether impressive debut that probes the social and emotional strains on military families in a fresh and insightful way.