Writer and speaker on subjects of faith, doubt and conscience, and author of Moonlight Sonata at the Mayo Clinic

Changing Light

Nora Gallagher’s elegant debut novel, Changing Light, is a love story set in Los Alamos during the summer of 1945, in the shadow of the creation of the first atomic bomb.

During the last summer of the war, in the beautiful New Mexico desert, a man and a woman come together: Eleanor Garrigue, a young painter from New York, and Leo Kavan, a neutron physicist. The story begins when Eleanor finds a delirious man lying by the river near her house. She takes him in and cares for him. In this novel of secrets, we learn before Eleanor does that Leo is AWOL from Los Alamos after witnessing a fatal radiation accident that has forced him to confront the moral implications of his work on the bomb. And we know, too, what Leo does not know: Eleanor is married, and has fled to New Mexico to escape her husband.

As Eleanor and Leo slowly reveal themselves to each other, their pasts and the present unfold in tandem, taking us from the heady art world in New York to Einstein’s Berlin, from the bomb labs in the English countryside to the hidden city of Los Alamos. Nora Gallagher perfectly evokes the veil of secrecy and tension surrounding the Manhattan Project, the constant hum of fear alongside the remarkable fearlessness of the scientists in the laboratories.

As Leo and Eleanor privately struggle with the losses the war has pitched into their lives, the two find unexpected solace in each other. Their story is all the more poignant because it can only flourish in a brief interlude–an interlude of brilliant madness and irrevocable change. As the scientists engage in literally “changing light,” Leo and Eleanor are connected and changed in unexpected ways by the brutal radiance of the war and their fierce love.


“You can almost smell the pinion smoke and the tortillas frying in Nora Gallagher’s evocative first novel...[she] effortlessly conjures the real and the imagined in language as clear as the Southwestern landscape...The novel’s inevitable chase unfolds sumptuously, over red chile, blue-corn enchiladas and sudden desert snowstorms, flashing back and forth in space and time from Chicago to Europe, from the Manhattan art scene to the dusty heights of Los Alamos ... Gallagher has mined the scientific and historical record scrupulously, but she doesn’t lard her narrative with science lessons or art lectures either. Her description of the manufacture of bomb molds has the spare precision of a lab notebook...”

— The New York Times Book Review

“Light, of course, counts here. It changes for the painter and informs her vision as she sees and re-sees the landscape of both New Mexico and her own heart, ‘breaking things up into their parts or shapes, or their essences.’ The physicist actually changes the light, and he’s caught up in ‘our gift, our desire, to see a thing in the world that once was only in our minds’ until he understands that the political powers cannot resist using it. The priest finds his own quiet light of faith and honor and it carries him as he had not imagined.

“Elegiac, intimate and probing, Changing Light is an auspicious beginning that maintains considerable tension as Nora Gallagher’s characters find what Leo knows: ‘a narrow margin of hope . . . That’s all I require.’”

— Lin Rolens, Santa Barbara News Press

“A debut that’s garnering some buzz. Think of it as Manhattan meets the Manhattan Project.”

— Globe and Mail (Canada)

“Changing Light’s themes are about love passion, betrayal and loyalty, and author Nora Gallagher weaves these pivotal events of history into an exquisitely written love story.”

— Curled Up with a Good Book at www.curledup.com

“ . . . Gallagher beautifully captures the fears and ideals of the scientists who spoke out against the monster they had created...”

— Los Angeles Times Magazine

"This commendably ambitious novel is insistently readable, energized by lush descriptions of southwestern vistas and efficiently dramatized historical materials . . . a vivid, thoughtful book that earns the reader's attention and respect. And the story of Los Alamos cannot be told too often."

— Kirkus Reviews

In her novel Changing Light, Nora Gallagher sets out in a new literary direction. Long known as a writer of theologically reflective memoirs about life in the church (Things Seen and Unseen, 1998) the spiritual dimensions of life crises (Practicing Resurrection, 2003), and as a print and online essayist (Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Beliefnet.com, Explorefaith.org), Gallagher has now written a novel that explores the emotional, religious, and ethical dilemmas of human beings in a new mode. Changing Light is at once a love story, a thriller, and a reflection on the demands of conscience. It is a serious novel about serious problems. And it is a wonderful read.

Gallagher’s prose is always elegant and sinuous, but it never calls attention to itself. As with Flaubert, we know ourselves to be in the presence of a shaping artistic presence, but that presence never intrudes upon the action or the characters. Changing Light accepts its characters as they are, and it provides a remarkable exposition of the social and moral world in which they operate . . . An exceptional work of fiction.

— Gary R. Hall, Anglican Theological Review

"Eleanor and Leo are marvelous characters-damaged but not prone to melodramas-and through them Gallagher touches on themes of Loss, independence and intractable morality. Gallagher's first foray into fiction distinguishes itself in an intriguing and spiritual tale."

— Publishers Weekly

"Breaking things down to truth and light—not just paintings and atoms—but the nature of self, the sources of faith and the purpose of life. This is the subject of Gallagher's ambitious, moving and insightful novel."

— Los Angeles Times

"An elegantly written, deeply intelligent, literary romance."

— San Francisco Chronical

"Changing Light is a beautifully crafted story, thoughtfully conceived, written and unusual emotional precision and moral clarity."

— Boston Globe

Advance Praise

“Known for reporting on ordinary people in extraordinary times, Gallagher focuses here on outright extraordinary people.”

— More Magazine

“Changing Light is a lyrical and passionate novel that takes on some of the largest matters of our day with no loss to its intimacy. Conviction that writing matters the way life matters is Gallagher’s hallmark, and this reader is her grateful beneficiary.”

— Thomas McGuane, author of “Gallatin Canyon”

“An elegiac and tenderly-written love story between a stranger and an artist on a high New Mexico mesa under the looming cloud of an atomic bomb, secret pasts, and hidden passions.”

— Gretel Ehrlich, author of “The Solace of Open Spaces”, “Heart Mountain” and “Islands, The Universe, Home”

“An incredibly beautiful story with echoes of Ondaatje and McEwan. Haunting and unforgettable, this is a smashing fiction debut from one of our most thoughtful writers.”

— Martha Sherrill, author of “The Ruins of California”

“At last, a novel about something. Nora Gallagher captures with dazzling beauty the lives of a woman and a man caught in the grip of history and our country’s shadowed past. I held my breath reading it.”

— Annie Dillard, Author of “For the Time Being” and “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek”

“Changing Light is a remarkable love story, told against the backdrop of Los Alamos, New Mexico, and the final innocent days of the world before the atom bomb. Nora Gallagher has effortlessly moved into the world of fiction, bringing her understanding of the spiritual life to her characters, and revealing the importance of faith, not just in religion, but between people, and among the inner workings of science and art.”

— Hannah Tinti, author of “Animal Crackers”

“This is a spare, beautifully crafted story about people trying to sort right from wrong under unforgiving circumstances. When good and evil partake of each other, when knowledge alone cannot separate the two, and when time has run out, then moral certainty becomes impossible. Yet the characters of this story, like all of us at one time or another, must somehow choose and live with the consequences. Nora Gallagher is no stranger to these themes, in her non-fiction work, she has already led us beyond the seen and the known to where feeling guides us. Here she goes it in fiction, and she has given us a jewel of a novel.”

— Mark Slazman, author of “Lying Awake”

“Changing Light is a love story about desperate people with brains, told quietly and passionately, and stuffed with clear New Mexico light; specifically, the terrible, majestic lights and shadows of Los Alamos in ’45, when The Bomb was born. It unfolds in a remote place that was very near the heart of the 29th century, it is as truthful as an old ballad, and nearly as elegant as Einstein’s physics.”

— Peter Behrens, author of “The Law of Dreams”

“The moral power of Nora Gallagher’s voice, so evident in her essays, resounds through her first novel. This is a book that deals wisely with many things—love, work, creativity, even physics. But it’s about simplicity in complex situations—i.e., about the lives that all of us lead in the modern age.”

— Bill McKibbe, author of “The End of Nature”

“Once again, Nora Gallagher has written, with compassion and grace, about the things that matter. Changing Light is a thoroughly imagined, spiritually courageous glimpse into a moment in time when good and evil might have been one and the same. By turns thriller, love story, and historical mystery, Gallagher turns out to be every bit as talented a novelist as she is a writer of gorgeous non-fiction.”

— Sue Halpern, author of “A Book of Hard Things”