In brief: The story of the women behind the men who worked on the top secret project at Los Alamos during World War II.
The good: Really drew me in and even though I knew what the Gadget was, I was shocked with the wives when they found out.
The not-so-good: Some may not like the collective wives being the narrator – it takes a little bit to get into the pace of the book.
Why I chose it: Sent to me by Bloomsbury Sydney – thank you!
Publisher: Bloomsbury Circus
Setting: Los Alamos, New Mexico predominantly
My rating: 8.5 out of 10
I’ve been fascinated by the story of Los Alamos ever since I saw a documentary on the men that worked there during World War II. (I didn’t even think about their wives, girlfriends or daughters – how narrow minded of me!) When I saw The Wives of Los Alamos, I knew this was a book I wanted to read for the perspective of what it was like to live, not just work on a top secret mission. I thought this was a non-fiction book, but it’s actually a novel that has been really well researched and tells the story of the women stationed there, no part of their lives left uncovered.
Los Alamos was the secret place in New Mexico, USA where scientists were recruited to work on a top secret mission for the government during World War II. Men and their families came from all parts of the US and further afield, such as Europe. For the wives, it was a complete upheaval. They had to leave their jobs (some were well respected academics in their own field) and their families, but couldn’t say where they were going. Heck, they didn’t even know where they were going. They were given new names. Their future address was nothing but a postal box. To get to their new home, they had to cross the country and then ask for directions in a shop. Once they arrived in Los Alamos, they needed passes to leave. They simply had no idea where they were going and what the essence was of all this secrecy. Their husbands were smart men, good men. So why didn’t they know what their new house would be like? The children’s school?
Nesbit captures all these worries and the adjustments the wives of Los Alamos had to make. I found it fascinating how there is no one main character, but the story is told from the collective first person of all the wives of Los Alamos. I imagine that this was not an easy thing to do, as the women were so different – from newlyweds to older wives, no children to many. They came from varying educational and cultural backgrounds, but they all had to make a living for their families in huts without bathrooms, stores that held very little and in complete isolation from their families and friends. It was no wonder that such strong bonds were formed between these women as they made the best out of what little they had. Nesbit’s writing captures this beautifully – the sense of a community thrown together that becomes very close out of shared need.
I did find it took me a little while to get used to the ‘we’ (the wives) of the narrative, but once I hit my stride, I was eager to read more. Even though I knew what the Project was, I was just as shocked as the wives when they found out what their husbands had been up to. Nesbit captured all the differing feelings so well – from shock and horror to jubilation at their role in ending the war. (From visiting Hiroshima and the Peace Museum, I was familiar with the effects of the bomb on the Japanese, but I hadn’t deeply considered the reaction of those who had invented the bomb. It was an eerie, uncomfortable feeling to know the feelings of both sides). Was the use of ‘we’ as the character in the novel to show the bomb was a team effort, or that the responsibility for the outcome could not be laid at the feet of one individual? Was it simply to show the coming together of individuals in the war? Or, to show that women are at heart the same?
If you’re looking for a story about particular named characters, you may not enjoy this book. But if you’re looking for an overall story of the lives of the women in Los Alamos (a place that didn’t really exist to the rest of the world in WWII), written in a unique voice, you’ll love it.