Be warned: despite its publisher's synopsis, this book is not another rewrite of Jack Finney's "Invasion of the Body Snatchers"! Instead, Rivka Galchen's "Atmospheric Disturbances" may just do for Capgras Syndrome (a rare mental disorder in which a person holds a delusional belief that someone they know has been replaced by an identical-seeming impostor) what Mark Haddon's "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time" did for Asperger Syndrome (and autism generally) back in 2003. Told from a similar first-person perspective, "Atmospheric Disturbances" chronicles the increasingly irrational behaviour of its protagonist as he attempts to track down and recover his real wife following her mysterious replacement one night by a doppelganger. But whereas Mark Haddon spends most of his book building up the reader's empathy with (or at least sympathetic understanding of) his teenage autistic protagonist, before finally making us aware of just how far from any understanding or real empathy we are, Rivka Galchen engages us mostly with the puzzle that her protagonist is himself battling to solve.
The central puzzle afflicting clinical psychiatrist Dr Leo Liebenstein is essentially the unexplained disappearance of his wife, Rema, and her replacement with a simulacrum which only Leo recognises as not being the real Rema. The story-line elucidates this puzzle through various bizarre complexities, most of which centre on Leo's conviction that his wife's disappearance must be linked to the disappearance of one of his own psychiatric patients, Harvey, and the particular details of Harvey's delusions (or "deviations from the consensus view", as Leo is careful to call them) that he has special powers, enabling him to control various aspects of the weather, as a result of which he is frequently sent on secret assignments, communicated to him via coded messages in the New York Post, on behalf of the Royal Academy of Meteorology in their on-going struggle across various parallel universes against the machinations of the 49 Quantum Fathers.
I fear, though, that in presenting Leo's predicament as her main subject, with the steps taken to resolve it seemingly supplying the central story-arc, the author may have set a trap for herself--or rather for her readers, many of whom will probably expect this puzzle to be played out and solved (or at least explained) by the end of the book. Such readers may be sadly disappointed if they don't manage to pick out the real subject or story-line of the book along the way. Similarly, any readers who expect the book to offer any explanations or revelations beyond the issues it turns over (or more accurately, I suppose, mulls over) as it progresses will similarly be disappointed. And quite possibly bewildered.
There are times when "Atmospheric Disturbances" can be extremely bewildering if you do not work to keep up. And Rivka Galchen really does expect her readers to work hard and to keep up mostly on their own. She does not go back to rescue anyone who falls by the wayside. For those of a mind to keep up, the book's strength lies not so much in where it goes, as in the countless ambiguities and possibilities for digressions that it throws up for the reader (as well as the protagonist) along the way.
If you are looking for a story in this book, you will probably be disappointed. Rather, what it does is to peg on to its story-line a series of explorations of many things, without ever connecting any of them explicitly, leaving each reader to connect the dots as they see fit--a kind of narrative equivalent of the psychologists' Rorschach ink-blot. It is a book that revels in the (often unintentional) poetry that is to be found in specialist scientific writings and which explores the potential of what happens when one re-attaches emotional significance but reduced understanding of the specifics, to a scientific phraseology which is supposedly devoid of emotion and which expects a high level of understanding of the specifics of its subject matter. The author explores love, and loss, and people's feelings about their place in the world, while at the same time exposing as bogus any notion that there is in fact such a thing as a reality which we all must accept and which is necessarily the same for everyone.
In blending her own background (she qualified as an MD specialising in Psychiatry) and her experiences of Argentina with the characters of both Leo and Rema, and in introducing her own real-life father (a world-renowned research meteorologist who died in 1994) and his actual scientific writings as one of the central characters in the puzzle facing her (fictional) protagonist, the author blurs the distinction between real and invented and between story-telling and fact. Her use of real, solid science (and her refusal to dumb that down to make it more accessible) as a basis for Leo's rationalisations of his (often bizarre) course of actions lead the reader further down avenues of uncertainty about whether Leo is indeed caught up in some vast conspiracy, whether there is some other tangential conspiracy into which he is merely being drawn, or whether he is, in fact, merely delusional. (After all, just because he's paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get him, does it?) The further into the book one gets, the more blurred become all of the distinctions between reality and fancy. Which is the whole point entirely. And which might leave many feeling that all-in-all this book is far too clever for its own good!
Ultimately, you may find you need to invest a lot of effort to get anything out of this book. Whether you will then find that worthwhile... well, that's not for me to say!