Sunday, July 26, 2020

Love, war, and atonement: Universe of Two by Stephen P. Kiernan

Kiernan (The Baker's Secret, 2017) movingly charts a couple’s relationship alongside the development of WWII’s Manhattan Project.

In 1943 Chicago, fun-loving Brenda Dubie first meets Charlie Fish, a skinny mathematician (inspired by the historical Charles Fisk), when he visits her family’s music shop. Over time, Charlie’s increasing technical expertise leads to his reluctant transfer to Los Alamos. Ignorant of his top secret and pivotal role in building detonators, Brenda urges Charlie to do his patriotic duty.

The characterizations feel bracingly real. Brenda’s youthful, self-centered haughtiness prevents her from appreciating Charlie’s finer qualities; Charlie’s earnest devotion to his work and Brenda drives him to actions with ramifications he doesn’t understand until later. Brenda is a challenging heroine, but her wistful reminiscences, as she looks back decades later, demonstrate her emotional growth.

Kiernan recreates the zeitgeist of America leading up to the atomic bomb on a national and personal level: the eager anticipation of wartime’s end, the grimly fascinating science, and the growing sense of guilt and dread. Simultaneously tender and hard-hitting, this riveting story offers much to reflect upon.

Universe of Two will be published on August 4th by William Morrow/HarperCollins. This review ran in Booklist's April 1st issue (reprinted with permission). The novel was originally scheduled for May publication but was delayed, as has been happening frequently in the industry, due to the pandemic.  I read it from an Edelweiss e-copy.

Additional thoughts: when it comes to fictionalizing historical characters and their experiences, authors have several approaches to consider. In creating an imagined character closely based on mathematician Charles B. Fisk, but who isn't him, Kiernan grants himself the freedom to deviate from the real person's life in order to tell the story he wants. As such, readers are able to separate the two men (one real, one fictional), and also learn more about Fisk afterwards if they wish to.


  1. I liked the last paragraph of your review as it showed me a different aspect of historical fiction which I had not really considered before.

  2. Thanks for your comment. I find this technique a better alternative than using the real person as a character but including details about him that didn't happen. Some liberties are expected in historical novels, but too many will confuse or mislead readers.