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Atmospheric Disturbances

by Rivka Galchen

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Atmospheric Disturbances by Rivka Galchen
© Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008

In Atmospheric Disturbances, Rivka Galchen's debut novel, psychiatrist Dr. Leo Liebenstein is firmly under the suspicion that his young Argentinian wife Rema has disappeared and been replaced by a sumulacrum, a copy that looks and sounds like Rema but in vaguely distinguishable aspects is certainly not her.

What's more, Harvey, a patient of Leo's who believes that he is able to control the weather and has in fact been employed as a secret agent for the Royal Academy of Meteorology to do so, has gone missing. All of this and more (including the Royal Academy's evil counter-society, the 49 Quantum Fathers) in the first 20 pages, drawing the reader relentlessly forward into Galchen's irresistible tale about perception, relationships, and meteorology.
Rivka Galchen's use of science for literary purposes is hardly surprising. Prior to pursuing her M.F.A. at Columbia, she received a medical degree in psychiatry from Mount Sinai School of Medicine. But Galchen mines more than her psychiatric background in Atmospheric Disturbances. In an attempt to reign in Harvey's meteorological delusions, or at least keep them closer to home, Leo pretends that he too is employed by the Royal Academy, and that he gets his orders straight from one of the Academy's fellows, one Tzvi Gal-Chen, which also happens to be the name of Rivka Galchen's father, who also happens to have been a meteorologist. Galchen's inclusion of her father in the novel is well done, not overwrought. But it is certainly more than incidental and clearly the seed from which many of the ideas within grew.

Leo descends further into his own delusions, pursuing them into South America while he, in turn is pursued by Rema, or Rema's doppleganger, and we are thrust into a maelstrom of deceit, double agents, and intrigue that at times touches on some heady meteorological concepts such as wind retrieval and single Doppler radar.
Leo's own voice - often awkward and ever-unreliable - is the vehicle through which Galchen delivers line after line of poetry and humor. Phrases such as "My heart always goes out to beautiful people, which I realize isn't fair, but at least my heart goes somewhere," and "peculiarity is something true rumpling the bedsheets of assumption," are found throughout the novel. Atmospheric Disturbances is a fantastic medley of compelling plot and beautiful prose.
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