My Rating: 4 leaky reactors
Publisher: Random House
Received from: Publisher, via NetGalley
Available for purchase: Amazon
Andria Williams’s first novel reads like a mix between Mad Men and Army Wives, with the looming threat of a nuclear meltdown simmering beneath it all. It’s a dazzling debut and a gripping read.
Paul was so lost in thought that night, driving, that it took him a moment to notice the ambulance heading toward him on the horizon. It arced up over the road, a starry flare against the black sky until it passed him, bright and soundless. A minute later, two fire trucks and the chief’s station wagon followed, traveling in a tight pack, their lights whirling yellow and white and red.
It’s 1959, and Nat, her husband Paul and their two young daughters are sent to Idaho Falls, where Paul’s orders are to oversee a small, experimental nuclear reactor. However, Paul soon discovers that the reactor is compromised, and his superiors are covering it up.
Meanwhile, lonely and restless, Nat struggles to adjust to suburban life and seeks friendship in a kind and helpful rancher, Esrom. But perhaps there is something more to their friendship; something wildly inappropriate.
Despite its weak aspirations toward suburban life, Idaho Falls remained mostly open space, flatness, hardened lava, and vultures that circled over the road like the last thing you might ever see.
The Longest Night gripped me from the first page, as the novel begins with the night of the catastrophe, before jumping back and showing the build up of the conflict both in the reactor’s ever-present and looming threat, and in the growing cracks in Paul and Nat’s perfect marriage.
The contrast between the scientific descriptions of Paul’s work and the romantic and dramatic expression of Nat’s perspective was brilliantly executed and showed the differences between their internal voices well. While the reactor’s failure is the most exciting part of the novel, the true core of this novel is the relationship between a wife and her husband.
The explosion, and then, almost as frightening, the fallout: drifting wherever the breeze took it, as brainless and indiscriminating as a jellyfish. Couple hours – less even – and the cloud could be right over their families in Idaho Falls. And where would Paul be, at that point? Thrown out to the gravel parking lot, shot full of steel punchings and metal bolts, like a clove-studded orange?
The pacing of the novel was excellent. It slowly builds to the terror and destruction of that single night in history, but shows the development of the characters of the people who lived through that event with sincerity and a great sense of empathy.
Furthermore, the scandal and gossip make it a titillating read, without ever becoming too dramatic. This book ran the risk of becoming a bit of a soap opera, but Williams skillfully shows just how a little drama goes a long way. And some of the most dramatic scenes were quite chilling. There is a dark shadow of evil lurking under the surface of this perfect suburban town, and it haunted me.
A sick feeling stirred inside of him, the gut-cold confirmation of his lifelong worldview: that this darkness was really what life was. Anything else you made for yourself was a temporary and tentative fiction.
The characters were interesting, and I think they were the best thing about the novel. Nat is a strong and compelling heroine, and I felt attached to her as she grows and changes through the story. I might also consider the reactor to be another “character”, as it seemed to have a will of its own.
The men were a little too alike; I couldn’t tell Paul’s coworkers apart other than by their basic appearance, and I think they could have used a little more development to be more concrete. I think I would have liked to have seen more interaction between the wives. While Nat and Paul are the main characters, I felt that Jeannie was such an interesting character that it would have been good to see her interacting with her husband and the other wives more. I would also have liked to see more from the townies, who are mentioned many times in passing but who never really get to speak for themselves.
The part of her that wanted to go with him bucked in defiance: They wouldn’t do anything wrong; they could just be near each other and live, briefly, in a daydream of affection and sweetness, feeling the rare joy of empathy: Can I get this for you? Here, let me help you. In a world gone mad, their makeshift family would be nothing but kindness and love.
Williams has written a clever, readable and thoroughly disturbing book about a little-known moment of history. This brief snapshot of a few ordinary lives, centered around a single, life-changing moment, is an amazing debut. It’s definitely worth reading.
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