Off the Shelf: Math, drawings, time travel and family

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

“Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should... You might be able to change the past, but does that fix it? What will you lose?” – “Atomic Anna”

What would you change if you could go back in time? Would major historical events be your priority or would you focus on family? What if your actions were responsible for a horrific event, yet changing the event would mean you couldn’t help a loved one? These are only a few of the questions raised by Rachel Barenbaum’s wonderful novel “Atomic Anna” (Grand Central Publishing), one of the few books I’ve read that left me gasping out loud during its last 100 pages. 

Anna Berkova is responsible for a horrific nuclear nightmare that occurs in the Soviet Union in 1986. During that explosion, she is transported to a different time and place, where she meets the daughter, Molly (Manya), whom she gave up decades before. Molly is dying of a gunshot wound and asks Anna to please save her daughter, Raisa. Anna is suddenly transported back to her original time and place, realizing that if she wants to save Molly and Raisa, she only has six years in which to do so. However, the beauty of the novel is that it not only follows Anna’s life, but that of Molly and Raisa as they move forward toward a moment that could change their lives forever. But now that Anna has learned that time travel is possible, she must decide if she should use it to save her family or to prevent the nuclear disaster partly caused by her actions.

Readers learn about the lives of all three characters and their complicated pasts. My favorite sections were those featuring Anna, particularly her journeys back in time and space. She has only a few hours to find Molly or Raisa, and it’s not always easy to influence their decisions. Chapters also look at Anna’s early life so readers will understand the reasons behind her original choices. Molly’s sections focus first on her childhood in Little Russia in Philadelphia during the 1960s. Molly doesn’t remember Anna and her adopted parents, Yulia and Lazar, want Molly to be an American, but are still fearful from the years they lived in the Soviet Union. The United States also turns out not to be the haven Lazar sought and so he and Yulia encourage Molly to focus on school, especially math, something that doesn’t interest her. Instead Molly wants to be an artist and rebels against Yulia and Lazar by dating Viktor, an enforcer for a Russian loan shark, who believes in her drawing. Unfortunately, Viktor has his own problems and Molly becomes addicted to drugs, something she tries to change after giving birth to Raisa, but is less than successful. However, what happens to her and Raisa might change, that is if Anna’s short appearances in the past can really modify what occurs in the future.

The title of the novel comes from the comics Molly draws: she turns Anna, herself and her daughter into superheroes, ones who debate the correct way to fight evil. Are vengeance and destruction the appropriate path or do you then become the same as the evil you’re fighting? As Molly changes over time so do her superheroes. And the comics become an important way for Molly and Anna to reach Raisa, whether from Molly’s original comics that Raisa finds in her closet or the ones brought back in time from the future to give Raisa clues on what she needs to accomplish next.

“Atomic Anna” is a complex novel, leaving readers to piece together how the different sections, which jump back and forth in time, are connected. However, the effort is well worth it. The math and physics used are explained as things of beauty so those with no background will be able to appreciate the love the characters feel for them. For all the math, physics and art discussed, the underlying focus is that of family and love, how even when we try our best and do what we think is the right thing, we may still fail to help those we love most. Yet, the novel also shows how an effort to understand another person’s feelings and learning the truth about the past may help one conquer mistakes and misdeeds. Does that happen in “Atomic Anna”? I won’t reveal that here, but readers may find themselves wanting to discuss their reactions to the plot and characters of this absorbing, puzzling and amazing novel.