On the morning of the Chernobyl disaster, Russia’s leading nuclear scientist Anna Berkova is sitting in her lab working on her pet project when the force of the blast sends her and her device into the future, December 8, 1992. There, Anna finds the daughter she long ago abandoned dying on the floor. With her last breaths Molly gives her a photograph and tells her to save Raisa, her daughter and Anna’s granddaughter.
In 1970s Philadelphia, Molly lives above and works in her adopted parents’ butcher shop in the Little Russia neighborhood. Unable to believe that her birth mother could have been behind a weapon as destructive as the atom bomb, she recasts her as the heroic Atomic Anna in the comics she’s always drawing when her parents want her to be doing schoolwork. Though Molly is bright and talented, the constant fighting with her parents eventually drives her into the arms of a local Russian gangster, with predictably disastrous results.
Years later, Raisa also lives and works in the butcher shop while her mother is behind bars. Raisa, encouraged by a mysterious old woman who keeps popping by and dropping off comic books, becomes fascinated with electromagnetics and waves. She also develops a fascination with Daniel, a Russian emigre working in the butcher shop whose father and sister died of radiation poisoning after Chernobyl. The Atomic Anna comics seem to be pleading Raisa for help, including a request to come to a remote mountain facility in the former Soviet Union before December 8, 1992.
Atomic Anna is not short on ambition. The narrative spans three generations and two continents, which would be complicated enough without including the comic book plots, complicated math, and time travel. Still, the book could use a little more audacity and specificity. The comic book stories are only alluded to, never in depth and never actually depicted. Other than some vague references to spaghettified waves there’s not much science, certainly not enough to satisfy science fiction fans. And the novel doesn’t give the reader much sense of Russian history beyond that of a quick Wikipedia search.
Barenbaum is on surer footing when it comes to the relationships between her characters. The unlikely family at the center of the novel feels real, as the characters keep inevitably hurting each other despite how much they love each other. Barenbaum’s depiction of Molly’s awful relationship and her addictions are also terrifyingly vivid. And she’s just as good when writing about the sweet and gentle love between Raisa and Daniel.
Eventually, though, the need to connect the disparate storylines overwhelms the good work done establishing the characters. Barenbaum’s resolution to the complicated time travel plot is a disappointing fizzle that leaves many questions unanswered and feels like a cop-out. It’s a half-hearted resolution sure to let down many readers.