The scientists’ wives tell the story of daily life in Los Alamos during the creation of the atomic bomb, in Nesbit’s lyrical, captivating historical debut.
There is no one single narrator. Rather, readers follow a collective "we" as they are uprooted from their varied lives in 1943 to follow their husbands to a makeshift city 7,200 feet above sea level in windswept, barren New Mexico. (Nesbit’s unusual style is reminiscent of Julie Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic, about another set of women living behind barbed wire in World War II America—Japanese-American women before and during their internment.) The wives arrive in Los Alamos as individuals, with relationships and beliefs that Nesbit captures alongside their growing, shared realization that they are no longer in charge of their own futures—and, in the case of foreigners, even their own names (the Fermis become the Farmers). While the husbands and a few women scientists spend the bulk of their time in the “Tech Area,” the wives, many highly educated with abandoned careers, cope with their new domestic realities: badly built identical houses, water shortages, limited schooling, boredom, gossip. But they also ride horses and collect pottery. And the husbands must be somewhat attentive since pregnancy is rampant. Uncomfortable social realities become exposed, as well as racism and snobbery toward the local Native Americans and the nonscientist workers. The wives also become distrustful of the members of the Women's Army Corps stationed at Los Alamos. By 1944, this cauldron of manic energy bubbles over in bouts of drinking and partying. There are rumors of musical beds. The women are all half in love with “The Director” (Robert Oppenheimer). But, by 1945, the mood darkens. An ominous secrecy heightens until the bomb is finally dropped. Individual women—like tough Louise, weepy Margaret, charismatic Starla and difficult Katherine—are less characters to follow than touchstones to keep the reader grounded as time passes in this insular world.
Nesbit artfully accumulates the tiny facts of an important historical moment, creating an emotional tapestry of time and place.