Oh Pure and Radiant Heart
Lydia Millet, Author . Soft Skull $25 (489p) ISBN 978-1-932360-
What if Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi and Leo Szilard, the primary physicists from the Manhattan Project, returned to contemporary America to survey their atomic legacy? That question forms the heart of Millet's excellent fourth novel, in which the souls of the three take earthly form in the present-day Southwest. Ann, a New Mexico librarian, spots the reincarnated Oppenheimer and Fermi at a restaurant near her home; Szilard soon joins them; Ann persuades her garden-designer husband, Ben, to take them all in. Subsequent trips to Los Alamos and (with the help of a rich UFOlogist) Japan to view the monuments at Hiroshima persuade the three to work for disarmament. Army surveillance ensues; at one rally, shots are fired; and Christian Fundamentalists try to take things in a more rapturous direction. It takes considerable talent to pull off a conceit like this, and for the most part Millet makes it look easy, drawing full-blown, dead-on portraits of the three scientists that don't diminish their characters or their work. Her threads on weapons buildup, the topsy-turvy mosaic of contemporary American political culture and the difficulties of marriage feel realistically motivated and nicely argued. Millet gives a whimsical conceit real depth, and the result, if a bit pious in spots, is a superb, memorable novel.
Reviewed on: 05/16/2005