Oh Pure and Radiant Heart

oh pure and radiant heart

Oh Pure and Radiant Heart imagines a world in which the three geniuses who were key to the invention of the atom bomb — physicists J. Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi and Leo Szilard — are displaced to contemporary America at the moment history’s first mushroom cloud rises over the New Mexico desert in July 1945. When the scientists appear in Santa Fe in 2003, Ann, a reference librarian, and her doting husband Ben take them in, and with the long-dead physicists for houseguests are swept up in a quixotic and calamitous quest.


Praise and Reviews


“[A] superb, memorable novel” (Starred Review)
–Publishers Weekly

“Millet … boldly fuses lyrical realism with precisely rendered far-outness to achieve a unique energy and perspicacity, the ideal approach to the most confounding reality of our era: the atomic bomb…As nonfiction books about the nuclear threat proliferate, Millet’s brilliant, madcap, poetic, fact-spiked, and penetrating novel (think Twain, Vonnegut, Murakami, and DeLillo) illuminates the personal dimension of our most daunting dilemma.” (Starred Review)

“Lydia Millet is da bomb. Literally …. Though Oh Pure and Radiant Heart possesses the nervy irreverence of Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller, Millet makes the subject matter her own, capturing the essence of these geniuses in a way that can only be described as, well, genius.”
–Vanity Fair

“In her brilliant and fearless new novel Oh Pure and Radiant Heart, Lydia Millet takes a headlong run at the subject of nuclear annihilation, weaving together black comedy, science, history, and time travel to produce, against stiff odds, a shattering and beautiful work.”
–Entertainment Weekly

“… a dense, seductive mix of history and imagination”
–Washington Post

“[A]s if toggling between HBO and the History Channel, Millet’s extravagant narrative is regularly interrupted by deadpan segments on the hideous, biblically proportioned power of thermonuclear weapons.”
–Village Voice






In the middle of the twentieth century three men were charged with the task of removing the tension between minute and vast things. It was their job to rend asunder the smallest unit of being known to be separable from itself; out of a particle so modest there are billions in a single tear, in a moment so brief it could not be perceived, they would make the finite infinite.

Two of the scientists were self-selected to split the atom. Leo Szilard and Enrico Fermi had chosen long before to work on the matter, to follow in the footsteps of Marie Curie and her husband, who had discovered radioactivity.

The third man was a theoretical physicist who had considered the subject of the divisible atom among many others. He was a generalist, not a specialist. He did not select himself per se, but was chosen for the job by a soldier.

Thousands worked at the whims of these men. From Szilard they took the first idea, from Fermi the fuel, from Oppenheimer both the orders and the inspiration. They built the first atomic bomb with primitive tools, performing their calculations on the same slide rules school children were given. For complex sums they punched keys on adding machines. Their equipment was clumsy and dull, or so it would seem by the standards of their children. Only their minds were sharp. In three years they achieved a technological miracle.

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