In the summer of 1945, near Los Alamos, Eleanor, a gifted painter who has fled to the desert to escape a destructive marriage, rescues the survivor of an auto accident. This is Leo, a physicist horrified by the moral implications of his work on developing the atomic bomb, and desperate to stop the U.S. government from using it on Japanese cities. Gallagher portrays the couple’s unfolding love story in lyrical prose. The delineation of character and delicate portrayal of passion in this novel are flawless.
As the lovers’ relationship deepens, and Leo examines his past and decides on a course of action, the reader is aware that soon the bomb will be dropped, whatever Leo does. In one respect, this robs the story of suspense but, in another, it heightens it; we know that all decisions must be made within a small envelope of time.
Gallagher attempts to present the decision to drop the bomb in all its moral complexity—her heroine has a brother in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp whose life will be saved only if the war swiftly ends. However, when Leo dismisses the assertion that the Japanese surrender must be unconditional by saying, “But what does it matter?” and receives no answer, one feels he is speaking for the author. We learn, from a newspaper clipping, about the deaths of Japanese soldiers in horrific detail. No other war deaths are presented this way, which skews the book emotionally. American officials are stick figures, mindlessly driven to use “the gadget.” The lovers are convincing, living people, and the atmosphere within the Los Alamos labs rings true, but there is little sense of a nation at war. As a meditation on history, the book falls short of the author’s ambitious aim.