Atom­ic Anna

By – April 4, 2022

Rachel Barenbaum’s new nov­el, Atom­ic Anna, begins with the 1986 melt­down of Cher­nobyl, where the main char­ac­ter, the Jew­ish sci­en­tist Anna Berko­va, instant­ly leaps into the future at the exact moment of the cat­a­stroph­ic explo­sion at the nuclear pow­er point. From this moment for­ward, the nov­el bounces between space and time with the help of Anna’s time machine. Each chap­ter revolves around the rela­tion­ships between Anna Berko­va, her daugh­ter Mol­ly, and her grand­daugh­ter Raisa, all of whom have the intel­lect and cre­ativ­i­ty to alter events of the past and change the future — both their per­son­al tra­jec­to­ries as well as the mass tragedy at Chernobyl.

This nov­el is about the impact that small deci­sions can have on the lives of many, how one deci­sion, con­ver­sa­tion, or action can have a rip­ple effect and impact gen­er­a­tions. At the cen­ter of the sto­ry, Anna Berko­va obsess­es over the details of sci­ence and engi­neer­ing and strug­gles to gain respect in a male-dom­i­nat­ed field in the Sovi­et Union. Dur­ing the 1930s and 1940s, she had to hide her Jew­ish iden­ti­ty at a time when Jews were being arrest­ed and deport­ed left and right. Anna unex­pect­ed­ly becomes preg­nant in her ear­ly for­ties, and the sto­ry of how her daugh­ter Mol­ly ends up being raised by Anna’s friends, Lazar and Yulia, a Jew­ish cou­ple from Anna’s past, is revealed over the course of the nov­el; Lazar and Yulia strive for a bet­ter life for them­selves and Mol­ly in America.

The nov­el rotates between Anna, Mol­ly, and Raisa’s per­spec­tives. Mol­ly is a bud­ding com­ic artist, but when she is in her late teens in Philadel­phia, she suc­cumbs to drug and alco­hol addic­tion and becomes unex­pect­ed­ly preg­nant with a daugh­ter, Raisa. Yulia and Lazar strug­gle to help Mol­ly improve her life as their dreams of suc­cess in Amer­i­ca crum­ble around them. Using her time machine, Anna appears at seem­ing­ly ran­dom moments to pro­vide urgent, dis­crete mes­sages about chang­ing their lives and warn­ing them about Cher­nobyl, a tragedy that she aims to pre­vent. Yulia is frus­trat­ed by the fact that when Anna appears from the future, she seems to care more about stop­ping Cher­nobyl than sav­ing her own fam­i­ly, as Mol­ly is falling deep­er and deep­er into drugs and despair. As Raisa grows, read­ers learn that she is the math­e­mat­i­cal genius of the fam­i­ly, and a schol­ar­ship oppor­tu­ni­ty at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Penn­syl­va­nia helps pave her way to find the answers Anna is look­ing for.

Each leap into time caus­es Anna to relearn her cur­rent time­line, as her life changes in some­times dras­tic ways each time she returns to the future. Time trav­el makes her body and mind ill; life feels like a big puz­zle, and Anna must use Mol­ly and Raisa’s knowl­edge to help her achieve her goals in real time and in the past.

Anna even­tu­al­ly real­izes that she can­not stop Cher­nobyl with­out focus­ing on sav­ing her fam­i­ly first. How­ev­er, this proves more dif­fi­cult than it sounds, and it includes mul­ti­ple trips through the time machine. Anna sneaks notes into Molly’s stun­ning com­ic books for Raisa to find, where the female super­heroes — Rock­et Raisa, Atom­ic Anna, and Mighty Min­er­va — give her clues about time trav­el, elec­tro­mag­net­ism, and gravity.

Atom­ic Anna tra­vers­es the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry; chap­ters move through time from the 1930s to the 1980s and 1990s. Trav­el­ing across time, read­ers expe­ri­ence the con­nect­ed­ness of the women in Anna’s life and how their knowl­edge, love, and col­lab­o­ra­tion are their superpowers.

Jamie Wendt is the author of the poet­ry col­lec­tion Fruit of the Earth (Main Street Rag, 2018), which won the 2019 Nation­al Fed­er­a­tion of Press Women Book Award in Poet­ry. Her man­u­script, Laugh­ing in Yid­dish, was a final­ist for the 2022 Philip Levine Prize in Poet­ry. Her poems and essays have been pub­lished in var­i­ous lit­er­ary jour­nals and antholo­gies, includ­ing Fem­i­nine Ris­ingGreen Moun­tains Review, Lilith, Jet Fuel Review, the For­ward, Poet­i­ca Mag­a­zine, and oth­ers. She con­tributes book reviews to Jew­ish Book Coun­cil as well as to oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, includ­ing Lit­er­ary Mama and Mom Egg Review. She has received an Hon­or­able Men­tion Push­cart Prize and was nom­i­nat­ed for Best Spir­i­tu­al Lit­er­a­ture. She holds an MFA in Cre­ative Writ­ing from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Nebras­ka Oma­ha. She is a mid­dle school Human­i­ties teacher and lives in Chica­go with her hus­band and two kids. 

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of Rachel Baren­baum and Grand Central/​Hachette