Galchen’s Atmospheric Disturbances reads like a breath of fresh air. The novel is equal parts mystery and philosophy. Her writing style is breezy. She walks the fine line between sparse and overly-descriptive with ease. Most importantly, the plot is highly original.
The novel follows the misadventures of Dr. Leo Liebenstein, an aging New York psychiatrist/hipster. One day Leo comes home to a woman who looks just like his beautiful Argentinian wife Rema. She has all the same memories and mannerisms but nothing can convince Leo that this is his real wife. He believes she has been replaced by a double but has no idea who did this or why they would do this. Forsaking this “simulacrum,” as her calls her, he travels to Argentina to seek the truth and to finally meet her estranged mother.
Tied up with this mystery is meteorological intrigue started off by one of Libenstein’s patients. Harvey is convinced he is part of a secret society that controls the weather. Although he is rather low on the secret society’s totem pole, Harvey frequently absconds to different parts of the country in order to perform the important weather control tasks given to him by the secret society. In a harebrained attempt to keep Harvey from taking off again, Rema and Leo set up a scam to give Harvey instructions using the name of meteorologist Tzvi Gal-Chen. Gal-Chen soon becomes a sort of conspirator in the plot, though no one has ever met him and there are plenty of obituaries in his name. Despite the complex nature of the plot, none of it ever seems silly or rushed. This is quite a feat considering the novel finished in less than 250 pages.
When Tzvi appears things get really interesting. It doesn’t take much to realize there may be a connection between “Tzvi Gal-Chen” and “Rivka Galchen.” Tzvi is actually a real person; in fact he is the father of Rivka. All of the research and personal information in the book is the real Gal-Chen’s. Also, Gal-Chen passed away unexpectedly. In many ways this book is a form of grieving. Like Leo, Rivka Galchen was trained as a psychiatrist. She also woke up one day to find someone important in her life missing. Atmosopheric Disturbances relates the states of panic, grief, and denial experienced during mourning as well as the way it can turn a life upside down. At the same time, it is not at all pushy about this theme. The focus remains on the mystery and never becomes preachy or over philosophical.
Rivka Galchen is a writer to watch. With a debut novel as well-written and exciting as Atmospheric Disturbances Galchen has the potential to be one of the best fiction writers working today.