“Stephen Kiernan has pulled off the nearly impossible...The most tender, terrifying, relevant book you’ll read this year.” — Jenna Blum, New York Times bestselling author of Those Who Save Us and The Lost Family
From the critically acclaimed author of The Baker’s Secret and The Curiosity comes a novel of conscience, love, and redemption—a fascinating fictionalized account of the life of Charlie Fisk, a gifted mathematician who was drafted into Manhattan Project and ordered against his morals to build the detonator for the atomic bomb. With his musician wife, he spends his postwar life seeking redemption—and they find it together.
Graduating from Harvard at the height of World War II, brilliant mathematician Charlie Fish is assigned to the Manhattan Project. Working with some of the age’s greatest scientific minds, including J. Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi, and Leo Szilard, Charlie is assigned the task of designing and building the detonator of the atomic bomb.
As he performs that work Charlie suffers a crisis of conscience, which his wife, Brenda—unaware of the true nature of Charlie’s top-secret task—mistakes as self-doubt. She urges him to set aside his qualms and continue. Once the bombs strike Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the feelings of culpability devastate him and Brenda.
At the war’s end, Charlie receives a scholarship to pursue a PhD in physics at Stanford—an opportunity he and Brenda hope will allow them a fresh start. But the past proves inescapable. All any of his new colleagues can talk about is the bomb, and what greater atomic weapons might be on the horizon. Haunted by guilt, Charlie and Brenda leave Stanford and decide to dedicate the rest of their lives to making amends for the evil he helped to birth into the world.
Based on the life of the actual mathematician Charles B. Fisk, Universe of Two combines riveting historical drama with a poignant love story. Stephen Kiernan has conjured a remarkable account of two people struggling to heal their consciences and find peace in a world forever changed.
Kiernan's lackluster fourth novel (after 2017's The Baker's Secret) concerns 19-year-old mathematician Charlie Fish, who's called away from his sweetheart, Brenda, to play a pivotal role in constructing the atomic bomb. Charlie bonds with Brenda at her family's Chicago music store during his breaks from working on a secret government project at a nearby university. When Charlie is recruited as part of the team sent to Los Alamos, Brenda doesn't understand the scope of Charlie's work, and doesn't cope well with his absence and cryptic letters. Despite this, the two pine for one another, and Brenda accepts a job as a Santa Fe church organist to be closer to him. Burdened with guilt over his work's destructive power and sworn to secrecy, Charlie relies on Brenda for strength before and especially after the bombings in Japan. The details of Los Alamos are fascinating, but characterization isn't Kiernan's strong suit; he only scratches the surface of his protagonists, and the story of their courtship, which takes up a good chunk of the novel, falls flat. This feels like a generic love story with the Manhattan Project tacked on for emotional heft.
Best Kiernan book yet