Dzanc Books (November 2015), trade paper (ISBN 1938103173 / 9781938103179)
Fiction, 224 pages
A version of this review was previously published in Shelf Awareness for Readers (December 15, 2015). Shelf Awareness provided me with a publisher-furnished galley to facilitate the review, and compensated me for the review they received and posted. This post contains affiliate links to Indiebound.
In Charmed Particles, first-time novelist Chrissy Kolaya incorporates physics, cultural assimilation, and family friendships into a story of small-town political conflict.
When the US Department of Energy announces that it is considering building a Superconducting Super Collider that would replace the National Research Accelerator Lab in Nicolet, Illinois, theoretical physicist Abhijat Mital is excited by what it could mean for his career, but many of Nicolet’s citizens don’t share his enthusiasm.
Among the opposition is mayoral candidate Rose Winchester, who has taken a position against the SSC; fueled by fear of the project’s environmental impact and resentment over potentially losing their homes to its construction, popular opinion seems to be on her side. However, Rose’s scientifically-inclined daughter Lily aligns herself with Abhijat, the father of her best friend, Meena, in support of the project and against her mother. Meanwhile, Meena and her mother Sarala, more attuned to their community than Abhijat is, both have reservations. Sarala has spent more than a decade trying to assimilate into the Midwestern suburbs, and is torn by understanding both her neighbors’ concerns and her husband’s hopes for the project; Meena just wants to fit in with her high-school class.
The early chapters of Charmed Particles are largely episodic and focused on developing the characters; by the time the SSC proposal is introduced, the reader has become invested in these people’s lives and how they will be changed by it, no matter what the outcome. Kolaya’s emphasis on personal relationships helps her portray the public controversy over the SSC with sympathy to all sides, and the result is a story that engages both heart and mind.
Rural Nicolet, Illinois, is a city anchored between two opposing forces, a living history museum devoted to the American frontier and a laboratory for experiments in high-energy particle physics. When the proposal to build the Superconducting Super Collider under the town sparks debate between the scientists and the locals, two families find themselves on opposite sides of controversy that fractures the community, exposing deep cultural rifts between longtime friends.
Abhijat, a scientist from India now working at the National Accelerator Research Laboratory, has a sole obsession: making a name for himself as one of the great theoretical physicists. The search for answers to the universe’s first questions blinds him to the burgeoning distance between him and his wife, Sarala, who devotes herself to their daughter Meena and assimilating into suburban America. Across town, Rose Winchester strives to raise precocious Lily, stitching together an unconventional marriage from the brief visits and vibrant letters of her husband Randolph, who fancies himself the last great gentleman explorer.
With incisive prose and infinite humanity, Charmed Particles traces the collision of past and progress, science and tradition, and the unimagined elements that may arise in the aftermath.
“Abhijat accepted the position at the National Accelerator Research Lab with great pride. The offer itself was the realization of his greatest dream, now made concrete by the desk he would sit behind, the nameplate on his door, the drive, every morning through the gates, where he would present his pass to the security guard who would, after a matter of weeks, begin to wave him through, recognizing Abhijat as one of the parade of scientists he’d been waving through those gates for years, and on that day, Abhijat would feel, at last, like he belonged.
“He had written to Sarala with the news that he had been offered a position at the premier particle accelerator and research facility in the United States, some argued in the world. He would begin the job at the end of the semester, after he had fulfilled his academic commitments to the university.
“At night, he took the short, quiet walk from his office on campus to the small set of rooms he rented in the house of an emeritus professor of philosophy with whom he sometimes enjoyed an evening game of chess before returning to his desk to pore over his work.
“As he walked—snow falling quietly around him as was common on those dark midwinter nights—he often caught himself peering into the lit-up windows of the houses he passed, imagining the life he and Sarala would make for themselves.”
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Here is one that I can tell from your description I will enjoy. As I work through writing my own debut novel (she says, wishfully thinking) I am fascinated by the way stories and characters are built and they way they unfold. Thanks for continuing to bring these titles out into the light!
I still have the galley, and would be happy to loan it to you! (But I’ll want it back–the author is a friend of a friend, and I’m thinking about sending it through her to get it signed.) This is one of the best debut novels I’ve read this year.