Atmospheric Disturbances A Novel

Rivka Galchen




Trade Paperback

256 Pages


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Winner of the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing
Shortlisted for the John Sargent, Sr. First Novel Prize
A New York Times Book Review Notable Book
A Cleveland Plain Dealer Best Book of the Year

When Dr. Leo Liebenstein's wife disappears, she leaves behind a single, confounding clue: a woman who looks, talks, and behaves exactly like her—or almost exactly like her—and even audaciously claims to be her. While everyone else is fooled by this imposter, Leo knows better than to trust his senses in matters of the heart. Certain that the original Rema is alive and in hiding, Leo embarks on a quixotic journey to reclaim his lost love.

With the help of his psychiatric patient Harvey, who believes himself to be a secret agent who can control the weather, Leo attempts to unravel the mystery of the spousal switch. His investigation leads him to the enigmatic guidance of the meteorologist Dr. Tzvi Gal-Chen, the secret workings of the Royal Academy of Meteorology in their cosmic conflict with the 49 Quantum Fathers, and the unwelcome conviction that somehow he—or maybe his wife, or maybe even Harvey—lies at the center of all these unfathomables. From the streets of New York to the southernmost reaches of Patagonia, Leo's erratic quest becomes a test of how far he is willing to take his struggle against the seemingly uncontestable truth he knows in his heart to be false.

Atmospheric Disturbances is at once a moving love story, a dark comedy, a psychological thriller, and a deeply disturbing portrait of a fracturing mind. With tremendous compassion and literary sophistication, Rivka Galchen investigates the moment of crisis when you suddenly realize that the reality you insist upon is no longer one you can accept, and the person you love has become merely the person you live with. This highly inventive debut explores the mysterious nature of human relationships, and how we spend our lives trying to weather the storms of our own making.


Praise for Atmospheric Disturbances

"[A] brainy, whimsical, emotionally contained first novel . . . It's unusual—in fact (why be coy?), it's extremely rare—to come across a first novel by a woman writer that concerns itself with such quirky, philosophical, didactic explorations; a novel in which the heart and the brain vie for the role of protagonist, and the brain wins. While the voice and mood of the novel are masculine, clinical and objective . . . the book's descriptions of colors, smells, clothing and bodies show feminine perception . . . Galchen's inventive narrative strategies call to mind the playful techniques of Jonathan Lethem, Franz Kafka, Primo Levi and Thomas Pynchon. But she also, quite deliberately, echoes the Argentine giant Jorge Luis Borges. Like Borges, she sabotages concepts of identity, reality and place, fraying her protagonist's ties to all three . . . Galchen's brainteasing book, whatever its pretexts, is an exploration of the mutability of romantic love. Although she has intellectualized and mystified her subject, intentionally obscuring it in a dry-ice fog of pseudoscience, the emotional peaks beneath her cloud retain their definition. The reader senses Rema's anguish, whether or not Leo has empathy for it."—Liesel Schillinger, The New York Times Book Review

"Rod Serling, strolling through a gallery of distorted portraits, should introduce Rivka Galchen's first novel. Atmospheric Disturbances takes place in the twilight zone of Leo Liebenstein's highly rational but utterly deluded mind. He's a middle-aged psychiatrist confounded by a strange problem: 'A woman entered my apartment who looked exactly like my wife,' he tells us on the opening page. 'Same everything, but it wasn't Rema.' This 'impostress' or 'simulacrum,' as he refers to her throughout the novel, looks exactly like his young wife, imitates her Argentine accent perfectly and possesses all her memories and attitudes. But he knows she isn't Rema . . . This sounds weird, of course, and it is—deliciously so—but on another level, it's common: After all, lots of people eventually conclude that their spouse isn't the person they once married . . . What Galchen has done is play out that sad realization in the mind of a psychotic psychiatrist, a man thoroughly versed in others' delusions but unable to perceive his own."—Ron Charles, The Washington Post

"A graceful handshake between science and literature."—The Wall Street Journal

"Atmospheric Disturbances is . . . a contribution to the Hamsun-Bernhard tradition of tragicomic first-person unreliability . . . Most first-person unreliability in fiction is reliably unreliable; rather mechanically, it teaches us how to read it, how to plug its holes. Double unreliability—or unreliable unreliability—is rarer, and more interesting, because it asks much more of the reader. Galchen, a playful writer . . . boldly denies us the comfort of a conclusive explanation. Atmospheric Disturbances is a novel of consciousness, not a novel about consciousness."—James Wood, The New Yorker

"A dense, fractally complex first novel by the conspicuously talented Rivka Galchen."—Lev Grossman, Time

"Genuinely suspenseful . . . Ms. Galchen is a writer to be watched."—The Economist

"'Last December,' explains the narrator of Atmospheric Disturbances, Rivka Galchen's droll, exquisite first novel, 'a woman entered my apartment who looked exactly like my wife.' The speaker is Leo Liebenstein, a New York psychiatrist, and the wife is Rema, an Argentine considerably younger than her husband. Confronted with this ingenious impostor (she's so good he briefly contemplates the possibility that one of her feet might really be his wife's), Leo is initially nonplused. Soon, however, he formulates a plan: find the real Rema. His search spans continents, entails a possible career change and enlists the help of a patient who says he can manipulate the weather. Although the reader never truly doubts that Leo is deluded, the nature and root of his fixation is the novel's central mystery . . . At once mournful and playful, Atmospheric Disturbances is not in the end a novel about insanity, with all its terror and suffering; Leo's own disturbance too closely resembles the mentality of ordinary people."—Laura Miller, Salon

"[Galchen's] tone is addictive, playful, halting, intellectual, colloquial."—Anne Roiphe, New York magazine

"'Last December a woman entered my apartment who looked exactly like my wife.' So begins Rivka Galchen's strange and enthralling first novel Atmospheric Disturbance, a whirlwind musing on doppelgangers, sanity, and meteorological currents. With deadpan wit and surrealist narration, Galchen's narrator, the psychiatrist Leo Liebenstein, takes the reader on a ride through New York, Buenos Aires and Patagonia, in search of his lost wife and of the nature of reality itself . . . Galchen's short chapters and dry delivery keep the plot moving, a twisty road where you can see just far enough ahead to appreciate the destination to which you're being delivered . . . By constantly keeping the reader on the defensive, unsure of the narrative's truth, Galchen induces the same sort of paranoia that Leo diagnoses in his patients and sees in himself. What keeps the narrative centered is the specificity of detail, the absurd descriptions of a small hole in a pocket, a pistachio-stained finger. Atmospheric Disturbances marks a masterful debut, a sardonic rollicking ride that returns you home, unsure as to whether you're the same as before the storm hit."—Sara N.S. Meirowitz. Lilith

"The usual thing to do, when a loved one goes missing, is to contact the police. But when Leo Liebenstein's young wife, Rema, seems to vanish, the New York psychiatrist looks to meteorology. His wife's disappearance is unorthodox. 'Last December a woman entered my apartment who looked exactly like my wife,' Leo tells us. The woman is carrying a small dog—and it is this that prompts him to doubt her identity. 'Same everything,' he notes, 'but it wasn't Rema' . . . Giving voice to a character as weird as Leo is quite a tightrope act but Galchen, in this excellent first novel, confidently pulls it off. The twitchy, digressive prose and idiosyncratic phrasing (tourists in a Patagonian town are described as 'the local culture of nonlocal pleasure seekers') are counterbalanced by Leo's analytical cast of mind and hypersensitivity. He knows his actions make him seem irrational and he is constantly accounting for this. When evidence weighing against his quest threatens to overwhelm it, Galchen wrong foots us with a twist that suggests he might have been on the right track all along. The novel is also very funny. The sheer oddness of Leo's thoughts, and the inadvertently comical way in which he articulates them, break the tide of analytical information and make the story race along. Galchen owes debts to Thomas Pynchon: her sinister meteorological collective, the 49 Quantum Fathers, is surely a reference to Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49, a book similarly preoccupied with cults. Meteorology, in Galchen's hands, becomes a fertile field, yielding insights into emotion and, in particular, the anxiety caused by knowing that we can never truly fathom the person we love."—Killian Fox, The Guardian (UK)

"There are passages so achingly beautiful in Galchen's strange puzzle of a book—about love, resilience, and perception."—Jennifer Reese, Entertainment Weekly (Grade: A)

"Galchen's dark and comical mystery is a clever take on the ways love, longing, and overanalysis can drive you absolutely nuts."—Marie Claire

"Atmospheric Disturbances, Rivka Galchen's remarkable debut, is a rare convergence of domestic tragedy and metaphysical mystery. Described through the darkly comedic voice of Leo, the narration ricochets between lengthy digressions on subjects ranging from the particulars of Doppler radar to the 'poetic charlatan' Jacques Lacan . . . She balances the narrative and scientific and philosophical asides with aplomb. While there may be surreal environs and mysteries unexplained, Galchen is less interested in the fanciful than the psychological. And as she skillfully shows, a fractured mind can be far more disorienting than any paranormal force."—Sarah Goldstein, Stop Smiling magazine

"Galchen has created a heart breaking puzzle of a novel. Hilarious and daring. The novel tracks the way we seek to destroy our most precious love affairs and, in doing so, our own sanity. The hero, Leo, is like a brilliant mad scientist trying to prove that the earth is flat, because he desperately needs a ledge high enough to jump off of."—Heather O'Neill, author of Lullabies for Little Criminals

"Rivka Galchen's Atmospheric Disturbances is playful yet profound, Murakami-esque yet original, analytical yet heartbreaking. It's an absolutely stunning and unforgettable debut."—Vendela Vida, author of Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name

"Reader, you are holding in your hand one of my favorite novels ever: Rivka Galchen's divinely hilarious, heartbreaking tale of Leo's search for his "lost" wife Rema. This is a novel of Borgesian erudition, wit, and playfulness, though its obsessively pursued subject --as it rarely was in the Argentine's fiction - is love, the enraptured lover, and the mystery of the beloved, the intersection of love's fictions, realities, and pathologies. It is also as funny as any episode of the Simpsons (imagine Homer as a besotted and brilliant New York psychiatrist). The prose jumps with one astonishing observation, insight, and description after another. Atmospheric Disturbances delivers unforgettable joy."—Francisco Goldman, author of The Divine Husband

"Erudite and chock-full of heartache, Rivka Galchen's virtuosic 'debut' novel reads like the work of a cutting-edge literary alchemist who has created in her laboratory the Book of the Now. Part thriller, part romance, part autobiography, part psychological study, her book's sweetly skewed brilliance and stealth-bomb sadness will make you swoon with this realization: yes, these kinds of books are still possible."—Heidi Julavits, author of The Uses of Enchantment

"Everything is other than it appears to be in Galchen's assured debut—an intricate puzzle powered by an urgently beating heart. That organ and the brain sustained by it are the property of Galchen's narrator, New York psychiatrist Leo Liebenstein—who immediately informs us that his South American-born wife Rema has disappeared and been replaced by a 'simulacrum' only superficially similar to the woman he loves. Leo's paranoid suspicions seem no more bizarre than the claims of another missing person: his delusional patient Harvey, who insists he is 'employed as a secret agent for the Royal Academy of Meteorology,' assigned to control the weather and to foil the nefarious 49 Quantum Fathers, whose experiments threaten the climate's very survival. What's really going on in Leo's crowded mind is hinted at in several allusions to T.S. Eliot's 'Four Quartets' and in a pattern of metaphors that link the relative predictability of human behavior with Doppler radar, triangulation and similar up-to-the-minute climatological measuring and verification techniques. With immense subtlety, Galchen assembles a deeply moving picture of a lover plaintively seeking permanence in a context of inexorable relativity, instability and change. And, in provocative glancing reference to 'the disappeared' victims of Argentina's 1970s 'Dirty War,' there is perhaps a buried allusion to Rima the bird girl, the lost loved one of W.H. Hudson's romantic classic Green Mansions. A superb first novel."—Kirkus Reviews

"Witty, tender, and conceptually dazzling, Galchen's metaphysical tale of longing, grief, love, and the volatility of the self gracefully charts the tempestuous weather of the human psyche."—Booklist (starred review)

"To Dr. Leo Liebenstein, a New York psychiatrist, it's the puppy that gives it away. His much younger 'real' wife, Rema, does not like dogs, so this woman who looks like Rema and smells like Rema and has brought him the puppy must be a simulacrum. Leo tells the faux Rema that he's on to her and wants his real wife back. Leo also believes that his missing patient, Harvey, is tied to the mystery. And what of the Royal Academy of Meteorology (RAM), which Harvey says has employed him as a secret agent? The real Rema convinced Leo to impersonate RAM staff member Tzvi Gal-Chen in his therapy work with Harvey, and now Leo is calling Gal-Chen on his Blackberry from across the ocean. But could Leo be talking to a dead man? Galchen's astonishing debut is rich in detail and scientific exploration and a kind of dreamy psychological dissembling that keeps the reader as baffled as Leo right to the end. This dense, brilliant novel should be much in demand, especially for book groups eager for the challenge of dissecting and reconstructing the clues in a search for the solution. Highly recommended."—Beth E. Andersen, Library Journal

"In this enthralling debut, psychiatrist Dr. Leo Liebenstein sets off to find his wife, Rema, who he believes has been replaced by a simulacrum. Also missing is one of Leo's patients, Harvey, who is convinced he receives coded messages (via Page Six in the New York Post) from the Royal Academy of Meteorology to control the weather. At Rema's urging, Leo pretends during his sessions with Harvey to be a Royal Academy agent (she thinks the fib could help break through to Harvey), and once Rema and Leo disappear, Leo turns to actual Royal Academy member Tzvi Gal-Chen's meteorological work to guide him in his search for his wife. Leo's quest takes him through Buenos Aires and Patagonia, and as he becomes increasingly delusional and erratic, Galchen adeptly reveals the actual situation to readers, including Rema's anguish and anger at her husband. Leo's devotion to the real Rema is heartbreaking and maddening; he cannot see that the woman he seeks has been with him all along. Don't be surprised if this gives you a Crying of Lot 49 nostalgia hit."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

Reviews from Goodreads




  • Atmospheric Disturbances - Book Trailer

    Rivka Galchen's impressive debut novel begins: "Last December a woman entered my apartment who looked exactly like my wife." We dare you to not read further! Here's the international book trailer for "Atmospheric Disturbances."



  • Rivka Galchen

  • Rivka Galchen recieved her M.D. from the Mount Sinai Shool of Medicine, having spent a year in South America working on public health issues. Galchen recently completed her MFA at Columbia University, where she was a Robert Bingham Fellow. Her essay on the Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum mechanics was published in The Believer, and she is the recipient of a 2006 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers' Award. Galchen lives in New York City. This is her first novel.

  • Rivka Galchen © Sandy Tait




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