four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
19-Nov-Dec-2005
By: 
Lydia Millet
user_rating: 
0

A-PureRadiantHeartOn July 16, 1945, the first atomic bomb was detonated in Los Alamos, New Mexico. At the moment of the explosion, three physicists responsible for the Manhattan Project disappeared. Sixty years later, a shy librarian spots the somewhat discombobulated Leo Szilard, Robert Oppenheimer, and Enrico Fermi near her home in Santa Fe. With her husband, she persuades the time-traveling scientists to address the terrible legacies of their atomic creation. Together they start working for global disarmament and embark on a cross-country bus tour to spread their message. The men acquire a bunch of groupies—from hippies to A-bomb survivors—and try to prevent militaristic Christians, who believe Oppenheimer is the Second Coming, from destroying their call for world peace.
Soft Skull. 489 pages. $25. ISBN: 1932360859

Chicago Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"For all its frenetic energy and fiery satire, Oh Pure and Radiant Heart . . . is an acutely sensitive novel, a work of many moods and modes, a richly dimensional, shrewd, and humanistic tale in the manner of Mark Twain, Kurt Vonnegut, and Haruki Murakami." Donna Seaman

Christian Science Monitor 4 of 5 Stars
"[The novel] is that rarest of finds: a compassionate satire, with a terrific premise and writing that’s so assured that readers should be lining up for admission to this dystopia. . . . [S]he lets the facts speak for themselves, to alternately harrowing and hilarious effect." Yvonne Zipp

Entertainment Weekly 4 of 5 Stars
"[A] brilliant and fearless novel. . . . But travel at your own risk: Where you end up is so very bleak that you may wish you’d stuck with the more familiar literary horrors of serial killers and incest survivors." Jennifer Reese

Plain Dealer 4 of 5 Stars
"With this novel, Millet has figured out a brilliant form of cultural commentary, but she is no grouch. . . . The author studs her novel with short, nonfiction segments of nuclear-arms facts, right up to the current administration’s call for ‘small’ tactical battlefield warheads." Karen R. Long

St. Louis Post-Dispatch 4 of 5 Stars
"Millet has written what might prove to be the year’s finest urban fantasy. . . . Sporting dark humor, caustic insight, and a genuinely disturbing denouement, [it] is a must-read for all fans of good literature—genre and mainstream alike." Dorman T. Shindler

Hartford Courant 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Delicate and beautifully handled, this is indeed a literary balancing act. . . . When it’s flying, this novel can be moving and wonderfully funny." Kit Reed

Washington Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Oh Pure and Radiant Heart may be her biggest gamble yet; it also promises to have the largest payoff because, while its premise seems absurd at first, its message is anything but. . . . But Millet devotes too many pages to the wearying multitude of followers, most of whom we get to know only as deeply as their salient satirical traits: Sheila the New Age babbler, Webster the contortionist, Adalbert the Belgian food activist." Sheri Holman

Kansas City Star 3 of 5 Stars
"Oh Pure and Radiant Heart warns us to wake up, pay attention, and care. But it delivers its message with humor, of the dark variety. . . . When the novel shifts from being based in locales, and goes on the road, it loses some of its charm and meditative quality." Jeffrey Ann Goudie

Critical Summary

Oppenheimer, Szilard, and Fermi can deal with life in the 2000s, but their consciences don’t fare as well; the scientists seek redemption both for themselves and the modern world. Despite the outlandish premise of her new novel—a combination of black comedy, history, science, time travel, and spiritual inquiry—Millet’s "what-if" scenario resounds as loudly today as it did 60 years ago. She draws amazing portraits of the physicists (the elegant Oppenheimer in particular) and finds humor in tragedy: "The Atomic Energy Commission says the best defense against an atom bomb is to BE SOMEWHERE ELSE when it bursts." Walk-ons, including the followers named after New Testament characters, are not as convincing, and a preachy environmentalism annoyed some critics. The consensus: the novel is "a shattering and beautiful work" (Entertainment Weekly).