‘Atomic Anna’ Discussion Guide
“The scientist Anna Berkova was asleep in her narrow bed in Pripyat, the closed city that housed workers from Chernobyl.… She didn’t hear the explosion or feel the catastrophic shudder as Reactor No. 4 ripped apart, its insides flayed, releasing the most dangerous substances known to man. Nor did she witness the shock of light that stabbed the dark, because at that exact moment Anna tore through time. It was her first jump—and it was an accident.” —Atomic Anna
Acclaimed author Rachel Barenbaum’s complex and ambitious new novel is a cross-genre work that melds time travel, sci-fi and historical fiction in a story about three generations of brilliant Jewish women desperately trying to stop the Chernobyl meltdown—to save thousands and, in the process, their own family. Centered around the dilemmas of the atomic age, the timely novel explores intergenerational trauma and Jewish identity in both the Soviet Union and the United States and grapples with themes of love and responsibility and the bonds between mothers and daughters.
Local book groups are a vital part of Hadassah for many members. If your chapter doesn’t already have one, now’s the time to start! We encourage groups to have their own discussions about Atomic Anna before or after watching the virtual interview with the author. To facilitate those discussions, we present the following discussion guide.
- Atomic Anna opens with the disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant that flings Anna, chief engineer of the facility, forward in time. A central theme in the book is the morality around the use and development of nuclear science and any scientific advancement that can be weaponized. Over the course of the book, how have the main characters’ views changed around the promise and danger of nuclear science? The Chernobyl plant, in Ukraine, was in the news after the Russian invasion of the country, as have been Russian threats to use nuclear weapons. Has that shifted your views on nuclear technology?
- The phrase “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should,” mentioned in a debate around creating a weapon to fight the Nazi regime, is repeated throughout the novel. Discuss how that phrase is used by the characters. How does it relate to questions about the use of time travel to change the lives of individuals in the past and in the future?
- Each of the nine sections of the book opens with a quote from Pirkei Avot, a book of Jewish ethical teachings. Why do you think the author chose to begin the sections with a quote from a traditional Jewish text? Analyze how each or some of the quotes connect to their subsequent sections.
- Intergenerational trauma and how it impacts parenting decisions is another theme of Atomic Anna, and complex, often dysfunctional, mother-daughter relationships permeate the novel. Describe and discuss the relationship between Anna and her daughter, Molly; Molly and her adopted mother, Yulia; and Molly and her daughter, Raisa, as well as other parent-child relationships in the book. How do misunderstandings and secrets between mothers and daughters impact their lives and decisions? How does the reader’s understanding of these relationships change over the course of the book?
- “Parents can’t tell children everything,” Yulia says to Molly, later explaining that parents omit information so as not to trap their children in the past. Do you agree with her statement? Discuss the dichotomy between privacy and openness in parent-child interactions. What do you think about Yulia and Lazar’s refusal to discuss the trauma they experienced in their childhoods? What about their choice to keep Anna and Yasha a secret from Molly?
- “We can be anything in America. We have opportunities here that Jews, Soviets, don’t have. But it’s fragile and we must be careful,” Lazar, Molly’s adoptive father, says early on in Atomic Anna. Discuss how different characters in the book view the American dream and their obstacles in fully integrating into American society. What do you think Lazar means by “it’s fragile”? Was he describing the freedoms that Americans and specifically American Jews enjoy, or his family’s status as illegal immigrants? Do you relate to the balance between “opportunity” and “fragility” in American society today and is that different from the way your parents and grandparents did?
- The necklace with the pendant of two bears, “one at war, the other at peace,” shows up throughout the book. Why is the necklace important to Anna, Yulia, Molly and Raisa? Discuss how the imagery of the necklace relates to the major themes of the novel.
- Compare the various romantic relationships in the novel. Which ones do you think are largely healthy and which are difficult, even toxic? Are there common threads between the various pairings? Discuss Anna’s romantic longings for Yulia and how it impacts her relationship with her husband, Yasha. Is there a connection between the death of Anna’s mother, Xenia, in a pro-Communist street protest and Anna’s reaction to Yasha’s idealism and naïve love for the Soviet Union?
- How do the various characters express their Jewish identity and the need or desire to assimilate into either Soviet or American society? Is Jewishness a source of sorrow and fear or joy and comfort for Anna, Yulia, Molly and Raisa? What about the men in the book? How does Lazar express his connection to his heritage? And what about Yasha, whose name is the Russian diminutive for Yaakov (a common Jewish first name in the Former Soviet Union)? His last name, Berlitsky, is seemingly Jewish, too. Do you think he is Jewish? If so, why does the author hide his Jewishness?
- Discuss the ending of the book and the results of Anna’s final time voyage. What changed and what remained the same? Did Anna achieve all her goals, and were her attempts to fix the past and present successful? Do you think that Anna, Molly, Yasha and the rest the family earned that ending?