Recap: In the time of war with her father and brother serving their country, Brenda remains at home in Chicago with her mother and the organs shop they own. Business is slow and feelings are dulled. Until Charlie walks in. His interest in organs and Brenda excite her in a way other boys haven’t. He’s not the most generically handsome, but there’s something about that Charlie. And Brenda is not the only one who notices.
Charlie stands out professionally as well. After an on-and-off again rocky relationship, Charlie has no choice but to leave for Los Alamos on a top secret mission for which he’s been recruited. His math and engineering skills are simply too good to go to waste.
Universe of Two tells the story of Brenda and Charlie, who much later learns that he’s working to build the detonator for an atomic bomb as part of the Manhattan Project. It’s governmental information he must keep from Brenda. While he keeps his work close to his chest, she keeps her feelings about Charlie close to hers. As times passes, they question their relationship, their work, their purpose and what really matters in life.
Analysis: Universe of Two bridges the gap between a war-focused historical fiction story and a romance story with the precision of the Manhattan Project engineers themselves. Each chapter flips back and forth between Brenda and Charlie as narrators. Where I thought I’d be lost by Charlie’s story and the mathematics of it all, I felt equally compelled by his story as I did Brenda’s. Charlie is suffering through so much guilt and shame about his work, and Brenda is clobbered with loneliness, indecision and pride.
It wasn’t until I finished the book that I learned Charlie’s character is based on a real man, Charles Fisk. This is truly my favorite kind of historical fiction as of late. It makes the story that much better when you know there are at least hints of truth woven throughout it. Author Stephen P. Kiernan also weaves beautiful prose, which really threw me for a “just a fiction novel.” (I’ve been reading so much nonfiction lately and been so inspired by the quotes I’ve pulled from them, I’ve started to question whether fiction could hold up in the same way; as it turns out, it can.) On page one, I was blown away by “It turns out the greatest kinds of strength are hidden, and move slowly, and cannot be stopped by anything until they have changed the world.” Damn.
The ending and epilogue felt a little rushed. The book was so journey-driven that by the end, I wanted more details about the outcome. But maybe I just didn’t want the book to end. And maybe the Kiernan’s point is that life is all about the journey after all.
MVP: Charlie. Brenda is wild and fun and complicated, but she’s often mean. And she knows it. Charlie lack confidence and may not be the most intuitive to say the least, but he is smart and full of love in a humble, soulful way. The reader understands what Brenda saw in him.