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An Atomic Romance

ISBN: 0375507191
By Bobbie Ann Mason
Review by: Tasha Whitton


First, I should say that I am a huge fan of Bobbie Ann Mason. I have read everything that she has ever written, she was the subject of my dissertation, and I have autographed copies of all of her novels and short story collections. So, I really wanted to love this novel and I just didn’t.

Mason has made a name for herself as an author who primarily bases her fiction geographically in Western Kentucky. She has published an autobiography of her early life in Mayfield, Kentucky, but this latest novel was a departure. The setting is not Kentucky and frankly I’m not sure what state it is. The characters travel to Chicago, so I am guessing it is Illinois.

The protagonist is Reed Futrell, an engineer at a local atomic energy plant where his father died years earlier in an accident. Reed enjoys camping in the forest near his plant, but now rumors of waste are in the news and Reed’s girlfriend, a biologist, is worried about him and the exposure she may have received when she picnicked with him there.

In one of her most recent interviews, Mason talked about the way that she wrote as a balance of words, comparing her process to writing poetry. She is most concerned with the “sound” of a scene rather than plot or even, it would seem, character development. There are lovely scenes in An Atomic Romance that ring true, but I did not feel invested in the lives of Reed or his girlfriend or his mother or his friend.

The undercurrents of the novel focus on the conflict between the past and present in American society—the “progress” of atomic energy and the mess that it has left along the way. Futrell’s screensaver is images from the Hubbell Telescope and his smallness is never more apparent then when he sits at his computer screen waiting for these images to appear. There are important lessons here and good language, but next time I hope that Mason sticks closer to home.

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