Second-novelist Kelby (In the Company of Angels, 2001) offers an intricate story of a young woman’s attempt to unravel the mysteries of her mother’s (and her own) past.
Lucienne Kundera grew up in a laboratory in New Mexico and became an astrophysicist. Her mother Hélène was a French scientist who had worked with Madame Curie’s son-in-law, so Lucienne was doing nothing more than going into the family business. Now well into middle age, Lucienne teaches at a small college outside Boston and has made a good name for herself in the field, and she has just been awarded a large grant for her research into black holes. But her private life is a mess. Her marriage of 16 years (to another scientist) collapsed under the strain of the workaholic Lucienne’s career, and she now finds herself (in her 50s) wondering just who she is. Part of the problem is that she never knew her father—or even who he was: Her mother fled Paris in 1940 and turned up in New Mexico three years later with the newborn Lucienne. What happened in between? Lucienne never has had the opportunity to find out, until she goes many years later to a conference in Paris and brings her mother along (for her first visit since WWII). Hélène is overwhelmed by the rush of memories the city enkindles in her, so much so that she tries to kill herself. At the hospital, Lucienne meets Dr. Assam, a kindly physician assigned to her mother’s case who turns out to have more than a professional connection to Hélène. Slowly, Lucienne manages to collect the fragments of a life that wound its way through the fire of occupied France to the heat of Los Alamos and on to the murk of various mental institutions before it split apart like an atom.
An improbable tale on the face of it, but thoroughly likable nevertheless, with a light touch and a rich collection of vivid (sometimes horribly so) characters.