9 reviews

The Wives of Los Alamos: A Novel
by TaraShea Nesbit

Published: 2014-02-25
Hardcover : 240 pages
14 members reading this now
19 clubs reading this now
5 members have read this book
Recommended to book clubs by 9 of 9 members

Winner of New Mexico-Arizona Book Awards (2014) in Fiction (historical fiction) and Best Book/New Mexico categories

They arrived in New Mexico ready for adventure, or at least resigned to it. But hope quickly turned to hardship as they were forced to adapt to a rugged military town where ...

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Winner of New Mexico-Arizona Book Awards (2014) in Fiction (historical fiction) and Best Book/New Mexico categories

They arrived in New Mexico ready for adventure, or at least resigned to it. But hope quickly turned to hardship as they were forced to adapt to a rugged military town where everything was a secret?including what their husbands were doing at the lab. Though they were strangers, they joined together?adapting to a landscape as fierce as it was absorbing, full of the banalities of everyday life and the drama of scientific discovery.

While the bomb was being invented, babies were born, friendships were forged, children grew up, and Los Alamos gradually transformed into a real community: one that was strained by the words they couldn't say out loud or in letters, and by the freedom they didn't have. But the end of the war would bring even bigger challenges, as the scientists and their families struggled with the burden of their contribution to the most destructive force in the history of mankind.

The Wives of Los Alamos is a testament to a remarkable group of real-life women and an exploration of a crucial, largely unconsidered aspect of one of the most monumental research projects in modern history.

Mountains and Plains bestseller list
Denver Post bestseller list
Mid-Atlantic bestseller list

Editorial Review

An Amazon Best Book of the Month, February 2014: Written in the first person plural--the collective “we”--TaraShea Nesbit’s debut is both understated and poetic as it describes the lives of the women who accompanied their scientist husbands to the American desert to work on a secret project that turned out to be the making of the atomic bomb. “We were Western women born in California and Montana, East Coast women born in Connecticut and New York, Midwestern women born in Nebraska and Ohio. . .” Nesbit writes, and so they were: all different, of course, and yet much the same as they came to bear and raise children, and make lives in a dangerous and secretive time and place. What was it like to be attached to a project you weren’t allowed any knowledge of? How did such a world-changing invention change you, your marriage, your family? These are the questions Nesbit tackles in this stunning novel, both concise and elliptical. In style, it echoes Julie Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic (also a first-person-plural account, of the Japanese internment in WWII.) Also like that book, it sheds light on historical events too rarely discussed in literature. This debut is a tour-de-force, in a quiet, careful and winning way. --Sara Nelson


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Discussion Questions

1) The Wives of Los Alamos is narrated in first person plural. While individual women are mentioned, the wives speak as a group. How does this affect your understanding of them and their story? Do you come to know any of them as individuals? What was your emotional response to this stylistic choice?

2) From the very beginning, the town of Los Alamos is one defined by secrets. Who is keeping information secret from whom? What type of information does each group within the community have access to and how does that information give them power?

3) Where do you see issues of race and class come up in the novel? Do race and class differences manifest themselves differently in this small, isolated community than they do in the world at large?

4) The wives of Los Alamos are often pregnant, their families steadily growing. What does it mean to be a mother in this community? What do you think it would be like to grow up in that environment, only to move back into the world after the bombs had been dropped?

5) In the days approaching the test of the atomic bomb, the husbands become increasingly distant. The wives are quick to wonder if the men have taken a lover, or if perhaps, in their isolation, they’ve let themselves go too much. How does this reflect back on the wives’ roles in Los Alamos? And in their marriages?

6) At times the wives seem to use their sexuality as a means of gathering information or making a social statement. Where do you see that come up in the book? In these instances, are they acting individually or as a group?

7) When the wives watch the test bomb explode, they think, “Our town had made something as strong and bright as the sun.” Has this been a communal creation? If it has been, what does it suggest about the accountability of all of the residents of the town going forward?

8) Regarding the creation of the bomb, the wives note, “On this place formed millions of years ago by a huge eruption, our husbands had just made their own.” What is suggested in that comparison about the forces of creation and destruction? Was the bomb part of an on-going cycle, or was it a disruption of one?

9) The wives have very different responses to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. What are those responses? Are you able to relate to all of them, or are there some you have trouble understanding?

10) Nesbit often mixes mundane details of everyday life with the monumental events discussed in the novel. For example, after the bombs are dropped in Japan, the wives exclaim, “You can build a bomb but you cannot fix a leaky faucet!” How does this mixture of the quotidian with the tremendous change your understanding of these people and events?

11) After Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the community in Los Alamos becomes the focus of national media. How do the wives respond to this attention?

12) In the final days of the project, the Director, J. Robert Oppenheimer, says to the community, “If you are a scientist you believe that it is good to find out how the world works; that it is good to find out what the realities are; that it is good to turn over to mankind at large the greatest possible power to control the world and to deal with it according to its lights and values.” Do you agree with that statement? What do you think the responsibility of a scientist is to society at large? Who should act as custodian to “the greatest possible power to control the world”?

13) Oppenheimer ends his speech to the scientists and wives by saying, “A day may come when men and women will curse the name Los Alamos.” Do you curse the name? Why or why not?

14) The scientists tell their wives shortly after Oppenheimer’s speech, “The world knowing the bomb exists is the best hope for peace.” What do they mean by that? Do you agree?

15) As the community of Los Alamos disperses, the wives observe: “Saying good-bye to our friends was not just saying good-by to them, we were saying good-bye to part of ourselves.” What are they leaving behind as they leave Los Alamos? How has this experience changed them?

Suggested by Members

I felt some of the questions were a bit complicated.
by kathymur92 (see profile) 01/21/15

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

Suggested reading (from the author:)

The Girls of Atomic City by Denise Kiernan; The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes; Hiroshima by John Hersey; American Prometheus by Kai Bird; The Ash Garden by Dennis Bock; The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka; Gone to Soldiers by Marge Piercy; Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank; Copenhagen by Michael Frayn; Refuge by Terry Tempest Williams; Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko; The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien.

“In this fascinating and artful debut, TaraShea Nesbit gives voice to the women closest to one of gravest and most telling moments in our collective history: the development and testing of the nuclear bomb at Los Alamos. Tender and mundane details of marriage and domesticity quietly collide with the covert and solemn work at hand. With chilling implications and charged, sure-footed prose, this is a novel—and writer—of consequence.”—Paula McLain, author of The Paris Wife

“The author’s writing—by turns touching, confiding, and matter-of-fact—perfectly captures the commonalities of the hive mind while also emphasizing the little things that make each wife dissimilar from the pack. This effect intensifies once the nature of the Los Alamos project is revealed and the men and their families grapple with the burden of their new creation. Engrossing, dense, and believable.” —Publishers Weekly, starred review

“Astounding . . . . The wives emerge with strong, individual personalities, and the reader feels immersed in a very real world . . . . Nesbit brings alive questions of war and power that dog us to this day.” —Booklist, starred review

“This well-researched and fast-paced novel gives a panoramic view of the lives of ordinary women whose husbands worked on the atomic bomb during World War II. Recommended both for its important subject matter and for the author's vivid storytelling.” —Library Journal

"Hypnotic and filled with elegaic details; Nesbit offers fascinating and disturbing insight into the secret life of the Los Alamos families." —Madeline Miller, author of The Song of Achilles

“I am in awe of this novel. TaraShea Nesbit's brave and brilliant choice of point of view for these women living inside their earth-shattering secret crucible brings home to us in the fullest way possible that our personal story is never just ours. The Wives of Los Alamos will be read and re-read and remembered.”—Gail Godwin, author of Flora

"[A] lyrical, captivating historical debut . . . . Nesbit artfully accumulates the tiny facts of an important historical moment, creating an emotional tapestry of time and place." —Kirkus Reviews, starred review

Book Club Recommendations

Member Reviews

Overall rating:
  "The Wives of Los Alamos"by PeggySue64 (see profile) 09/10/15

An interesting story of the experiences of women living in the compound of Los Alamos during the secret development project that resulted in the atom bomb.

  "the wives of los alamos"by bhale (see profile) 06/26/15

  "The Wives of Los Alamos"by cimlibrarian (see profile) 04/16/15

An excellent fictional account of life the scientific community of Los Alamos during World War II told from the first person plural point of view. The novel drew you into0 the lives of the w... (read more)

  "A little known story about the women who followed their men to Los Alamos!"by thewanderingjew (see profile) 01/23/15

The book begins with a series of queries about what might have happened to these inhabitants of Los Alamos before they abandoned their prior homes to follow their husbands to an unknown plac... (read more)

  "The Wives of Los Alamos"by kathymur92 (see profile) 01/21/15

Although not a story of one family, and written in first person plural, I found it a refreshing change. The subject matter of how these people l found very interesting.

  "The Wives of Los Alamos"by dkrach (see profile) 10/01/14

Reaction to the book was very positive. The use of the plural "we" as opposed to "I" made most of us feel like we were part of the action. Stimulated much discussion.

by Neverdust (see profile) 06/19/14

by pharness (see profile) 06/18/14

by mbpazazz (see profile) 06/18/14

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