Atomic Romance – Bobbie Ann Mason

[asa left]0375507191[/asa] I didn’t know about this novel until I caught sight of it on the new releases shelf at the public library. I like Mason’s short stories, and I liked the flap copy, so I took it home and now I’ve read it.

Probably I’ve read fifty books since the last time I posted a review. A book has to stand out in my mind for me to write about it here. If you’ve been here for a while, you’ll know that I don’t write a negative review unless there’s some larger point about craft to be made. And of course if I run into something fantastic, I will post about it here.

Atomic Romance is a good novel. A really good novel, in many ways. Engaging and beautifully written and observed. But it’s also missing something important.

This is the story of Reed Futrell, a guy in his forties, divorced, with two grown children. He’s got a mother who made a lifetime out of independent quirkiness; he’s got an on-again-off-again girlfriend with whom he shares a consuming interest in quantum mechanics and the Hubble telescope; he has worked for twenty years as an engineer making repairs at a uranium enrichment plant.

As is always the case, this story moves along on the power of conflict. Big conflicts, both present and past, small and large. Reed’s mother is sick and approaching the end of her life; he’s in love with Julia but they are always at odds about his job; and there’s the nuclear power plant that killed his father in a chemical accident, and is now constantly in the news because old sins are rising to the surface. Beyond the expected contaminated soil and slag heaps, it seems as though the company Reed chose to trust may not have deserved his loyalty. Through the papers the workers learn about beryllium and plutonium exposure. In a small Kentucky town dependent on the plant at the center of its economy, this news is more than unsettling.

Here’s the thing. Reed is a very engaging character. He’s likeable and interesting. As the novel opens, he’s lethargic. Alternately fascinated by science, and unwilling to really think about what’s wrong at the plant, and what repercussions he might personally be facing. Julia is outraged and worried, and he skates along trying to pretend everything is all right.

Mason obviously knows a huge amount about these power plants and how they work. I like novels that look closely at the relationship between a mind and the tasks it takes on, and this novel does that in a very closely observed way:

“Powerful electric motors sent the gas spinning and shooting through hundreds of axial-flow compressors and into converters, where barriers with tiny holes filtered out the heavier isotopes. . . . This was the system, his friend and his enemy.”

The problem is that in spite of the richness of characterization and the conflicts which are set up so carefully, the novel meanders. A lot of it simply takes place in Reed’s head, and key scenes between characters are summarized or left out. I like Reed and his thoughts, but I needed more movement. Even when the parallel crises come to a head (what’s going on at the plant, and his relationship with Julia) there’s little energy here. There’s so little energy that the resolution sputters unconvincingly, and in fact it felt as if Mason were looking for a neat way to tie up loose ends. Which is unusual for her, and a disappointment as far as this novel is concerned.

And oddly, I’d still recommend this. I’d be curious to know what other people thought about it.