Nora Gallagher’s elegant debut novel, Changing Light, is a love story set in Los Alamos during the summer of 1945, in the shadow of the creation of the first atomic bomb.
During the last summer of the war, in the beautiful New Mexico desert, a man and a woman come together: Eleanor Garrigue, a young painter from New York, and Leo Kavan, a neutron physicist. The story begins when Eleanor finds a delirious man lying by the river near her house. She takes him in and cares for him. In this novel of secrets, we learn before Eleanor does that Leo is AWOL from Los Alamos after witnessing a fatal radiation accident that has forced him to confront the moral implications of his work on the bomb. And we know, too, what Leo does not know: Eleanor is married, and has fled to New Mexico to escape her husband.
As Eleanor and Leo slowly reveal themselves to each other, their pasts and the present unfold in tandem, taking us from the heady art world in New York to Einstein’s Berlin, from the bomb labs in the English countryside to the hidden city of Los Alamos. Nora Gallagher perfectly evokes the veil of secrecy and tension surrounding the Manhattan Project, the constant hum of fear alongside the remarkable fearlessness of the scientists in the laboratories.
As Leo and Eleanor privately struggle with the losses the war has pitched into their lives, the two find unexpected solace in each other. Their story is all the more poignant because it can only flourish in a brief interlude–an interlude of brilliant madness and irrevocable change. As the scientists engage in literally “changing light,” Leo and Eleanor are connected and changed in unexpected ways by the brutal radiance of the war and their fierce love.