Attempting to combine historical science with a hefty dose of troubled marriage, Lydia Millet’s Oh Pure and Radiant Heart struggles mightily to convince readers of its credentials in both realms while managing to engage us in neither.
Millet liberally drops in anecdotes that may or may not be fictional with the intent of turning the historical figures of Szilard, Oppenheimer, and Fermi—the three scientists most responsible for the atom bomb—into three-dimensional characters, somehow transported from the moment of the atom bomb’s first test to present day Sante Fe, New Mexico. While there are jokes aplenty in the tired fish-out-of-water tradition—see the genius scientist from the past lauding the lyrical genius of Ice Cube!—the characters seem to be little more than slaves to Millet’s agenda, which includes extensive commentary about any number of progressive ideas, causes, and social commentaries. This is neither effective as polemic (not as a matter of disagreement; more often than not, her points are valid, but the scolding intellectual tone is a turn-off) nor is it engaging as narrative. Anecdote, deep thought, comic sitcom scene, sage observation of human foibles, rinse, repeat.
The book does raise interesting questions about the individual’s role and control in the shaping of human fate, and, reading Oh Pure, I felt disappointed in the opportunities lost by Millet. A shorter novel with fewer clowns crammed into the car could have been engaging both to literary Soft Skull aficionados as well as the Today Show Book Club crowd. Unfortunately, too much is asked of the reader as the scientists inspire a movement, travel across the country to save the world, and everybody learns a little bit about themselves in the process. Millet has attempted something ambitious but, like the efforts of the Oppenheimer, Szilard, and Fermi, the results of all that work do not seem to be under the control of its author.
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