The Shape of the Atmosphere

Fiction - General
252 Pages
Reviewed on 02/25/2017
Buy on Amazon

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Author Biography

Jessica Dainty is a native New Englander, who has bounced back and forth from the Northeast to Tennessee over the past 20 years. Jessica works as an English/Special Education teacher and Reading Interventionist in her school system. When she is not writing her own words, she loves helping her students fall in love with reading, especially those who may have given up on it long ago. In addition, she coaches her high school swim team, does contract editing, tutors, and is an avid knitter.

She received her undergraduate from the UT-Knoxville, where she started in poetry. She took her first fiction workshop for the simple reason that it terrified her, and after that, she never looked back. She continued on to earn her MFA in Creative Writing from Lesley University, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she studied with Hester Kaplan and AJ Verdelle, among others.

Jessica is drawn to darker literature with a slight silver lining of hope, and her writing reflects this. Her debut novel, THE SHAPE OF THE ATMOSPHERE, is a historical coming of age story set against the backdrop of the early space race about a young girl sent to a private mental institution in the 1950s. Additionally, Jessica’s short stories have been published in various places, including SNReview, Fiction Weekly, Scholars & Rogues, and Composition Cooperative. She is represented by Linda Camacho of Prospect Agency.

Connect with Jessica on social media! She’s on Facebook at and Twitter at the handle @daintywriterj3.

    Book Review

Reviewed by Chris Fischer for Readers' Favorite

The Shape of the Atmosphere, the excellent book written by a promising debut author, Jessica Dainty, is a story that I found very difficult to put down once I started reading it. Follow the story of young Gertie MacLarsen, a teenager who has felt ugly and mostly unloved her entire life. Raised by her alcoholic mother and a fairly absent father, Gertie's life has certainly not been easy. When her mother commits her to Willow Estate, a mental institution, on her 16th birthday, and after a devastating family tragedy, it seems likely that her life could only get worse. And in many ways that does happen. Encountering cruelty and difficulties around every corner, Gertie also finds an odd family of sorts amongst those at Willow Estate, and in some ways, finds herself as well.

I found The Shape of the Atmosphere to be a surprising and unique read, especially one coming from an author new to the scene. Author Jessica Dainty has produced a book that belies her newbie status, a sophisticated and poignant read, and does an excellent job in portraying what mental health treatment was likely all about in 1950s America. I feel that almost any reader who enjoys fiction would find this an extremely worthy read, and it is with excitement that I offer this book my very highest recommendation. I feel that author Jessica Dainty is certainly one to watch. With talent as obvious as hers, it is unlikely that she will remain undiscovered for long!

Jack Magnus

The Shape of the Atmosphere is a literary fiction novel suitable for adult and young adult readers, written by Jessica Dainty. Gertrude hated her name, but somehow her father contrived to make it an outpouring of their mutual affection and kinship by calling her Gertie. Gertie MacLarsen was still a harsh-sounding name, but infinitely better than the formal, ugly version bestowed upon her by her mother. He had wanted to name her Annabelle, a name that even now, at sixteen years old, had seemed a name of beauty and light, but her mother had chosen Gertrude instead, almost as if giving her an ugly name would pay her back for the pains of birthing her. It was on Gertie’s birthday, October 4, 1957, that the Russians' Sputnik appeared in the sky after they won the intense and fevered competition of the space race. Gertie's dad had woken her up in the middle of the night so they could watch it pass overhead, and they both raptly followed its glowing passage and then feasted on the sight of the brilliant stars which remained in its wake. They shared a love of astronomy ever since he had bought her the telescope which was set up in her bedroom window. He'd point out the constellations, and when he wasn't there, she'd attempt to recognize each one on her own.

The next morning was a Saturday, and everything was subtly different. Gertie and her sister experienced the rare luxury of sleeping and evading their morning chores, and their mom made pancakes, a special treat. They lounged around and watched TV until it was time for Alison's field hockey game. That was something her dad and Alison had in common; he loved going to see her games. He had invited Gertie to come along that day, but she had noticed the stifled sobbing from within the pantry where her mother was apt to hide herself, and Gertie felt an obligation to be there for her. As six o’clock approached, and Gertie expected the two to come home flushed with excitement from the game, she heard, instead, a knock on the door. Bobby, a local policeman, and, Gertie suspected, a former love interest of her mom, brought the worst of news.

Alison and her dad had died in an accident. Nothing would ever be the same. Gertie had no way to navigate the hollowness and guilt over wishing that her mom had died instead of him. The funeral was a grotesque, surreal experience, and her mother's presence seemed that of an alien being. On the way home, her mom noticed that Gertie had scars on her arm from the matches she had found in her father's desk and small cuts from his razor blades. Her mom cried into those raised welts and tiny scars on the way home, and, that night had arranged for Gertie to be institutionalized. Another knock on the door greeted Gertie and a man introduced himself as a doctor. Gertie noticed her dad’s suitcase in the hallway and realized her mom had packed it for her. She never came out to see Gertie go or even wave goodbye from an upstairs window as Gertie numbly followed the doctor to the waiting car. Gertie had been cast aside, and a frightening future loomed ahead.

Jessica Dainty's literary coming of age novel, The Shape of the Atmosphere, tackles the unspoken history of the mental institution in early twentieth-century American culture as the place where families hid those who didn't conform or weren't wanted. Gertie's rare birthday celebration spent with family ends so abruptly and, suddenly, she's in an institutionalized setting where she's drugged, humiliated and subjected to all manner of indignities. One can’t help but feel for her as she attempts to navigate the loss and rejection, and then come to terms with her new surroundings. And, yet, somehow, she finds love, companionship, and family in the fellow inmates who have somehow ended up in Willow Estates. As I read this marvelous debut novel, I frequently recalled my experience first reading Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain. While Hans Castorp's stay at the luxurious tuberculosis sanitarium in Davos is an infinitely less humiliating experience, there's still that sense of fear and other-worldliness as the inmates come to care for each other, and the reader, as spectator, becomes entranced in their world. Dainty's story touches beautifully on the plight of those people who didn't conform, the women who took no joy in domestic bliss or remained adamantly single, the men who stuttered or had other imperfections society frowned upon. Watching as Gertie grows into a strong, resilient and empowered young woman is a thing of joy; seeing her first forays into romance through the once a month social where the men and women inmates could socialize is heart-achingly lovely. The Shape of the Atmosphere is a glorious work set in, of all places, a mental institution, and Dainty's characters shine brilliantly despite the harsh and random cruelty of their surroundings. This remarkable debut novel is most highly recommended.

Viga Boland

Good heavens! Whatever made me think I was reading a memoir when reading The Shape of the Atmosphere by Jessica Dainty? It might have been the fact that it was written in first person. But more likely, it was because this riveting story, set in the fifties, with a 16-year-old as its protagonist, has such a ring of truth that one completely forgets it's fiction. On her 16th birthday, the very lonely Gertrude, who hates her name and considers herself ugly, learns that her beloved father and her older sister have been killed in an accident. Reeling from the shock and completely unable to process that she will no longer spend time discussing the stars and constellations with her dad, an activity that meant the world to her at bedtime, she holds back her tears and self-mutilates in an effort to feel something beyond the pain of her loss. Sadly, her alcoholic, religious mother is equally lost and unable to comfort her. When her mother notices Gertrude's self-destructive behaviour, with no warning, she has Gertie committed for therapy at Willow Estate. Over the next two years, while enduring the often brutal forms of therapy used during the fifties, like ice-baths and electric shock, Gertie questions her sanity many times and wonders if she truly belongs at Willow Estate. Yet oft-times, she feels more at home, more loved and accepted there than she did growing up with her family.

There is no way I will spoil your enjoyment of The Shape of the Atmosphere by telling you much more. This is a must-read book that, regardless of the era it's set in, explores young adults' minds, their insecurities about themselves, their relationships with adults, and especially with their parents. Jessica Dainty has woven a fascinating story around characters and events not easily forgotten in order to probe how young people react to and handle traumatic events. Gertie's insights into herself, and the motivations behind everything she does to cope with life inside the institution and outside of it are realistic and moving. The Shape of the Atmosphere will keep readers absorbed to the very last word. Should Gertrude have been committed? And what happened with her mother? Read this 5-star story to find out for yourself. Hopefully, The Shape of the Atmosphere is the first of more books to come from Jessica Dainty.

Tracy Slowiak

In an interesting and well written read by debut author Jessica Dainty, The Shape of the Atmosphere is a book that will grab readers from the very beginning and keep them obsessively reading all the way through to the very end. Follow the story of Gertie MacLarsen, a young woman who believes that she was given ugliness at birth, and the only time she feels beautiful is on the rare occasions that her father comes to show her the stars at night. When Gertie turns 16, her alcoholic mother has her committed to Willow Estate Sanatorium, and what initially meets her there is more ugliness, and a whole lot of terror. Eventually, even through the ugliness, Gertie is able to develop close bonds with some of the other patients, and a strong family, one unlike what she has ever experienced before, is born. Will Gertie survive her time in the institution? You will need to read this engrossing book to find out.

I so enjoyed The Shape of the Atmosphere. Author Jessica Dainty has done an absolutely fantastic job in creating characters that her readers will connect with, relate to and truly come to care about. If that isn't a hallmark of a great author, I'm not sure what is. Her narrative style is very readable, and her abilities in scene setting, especially in the sanatorium, are simply second to none. Any reader who is looking for an excellent work of fiction by a writer who promises to be a rising star in the world of literature should absolutely read this book. I am very pleased to be able to highly recommend The Shape of the Atmosphere, and I will certainly be looking for more from author Jessica Dainty, hopefully in the very near future!