Saturday, June 30, 2012

The Invention of Everything Else by Samantha Hunt

I'm way ahead on my trip around the world, so I am catching up on other reading. I just finished another Orange Prize shortlist book from 2009. This one focuses on the life of Nikola Tesla, a fascinating and brilliant man who was not fully appreciated in his lifetime. Here is my review from Goodreads:

The Invention of Everything ElseThe Invention of Everything Else by Samantha Hunt

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The six or seven minutes that follow—such a short time when one considers a day, a month, a decade—have the focus and brunt of years jammed into them. Imagining that one could boil the complexities of a lifetime, reducing them over a slow fire for ages until the drops left after dissolution have a flavor as rich and complicated as all mystery. Robert and I say nothing. Perhaps the darkness or the remove allows us to look at each other as honestly and for as long as we do. Perhaps it is the quiet of the night that allows us not to speak, or perhaps it is because what we are thinking is unspeakable.

I wavered between a 3.5 and a 4 on this one, but in writing the review and selecting quotes, I opted for the 4. The reason for my ambivalence is explained below. The Invention of Everything Else chronicles a week in the life of Louisa, a chambermaid at a New York hotel, and her brief friendship with the reclusive Nikola Tesla, who lives in one of the suites there. Through the novel we learn of Tesla's life, both its triumphs and disappointments. We are also introduced to the small circle of people in Louisa's life--her father, still pining for his late wife, his best friend, who is trying to invent a time machine, and a mysterious suitor named Arthur. I found the book a little uneven; I generally liked the sections that focused on Tesla more than those focusing mainly on Louisa's family. However, it came together increasingly successfully by the end. I was pleased with the way the novel succeeded in making me fascinated with and respectful for Tesla. Part way through the book, I hopped on Wikipedia to read Tesla's entry and see how much of the book is based on fact. Virtually all of the material about Tesla is true, and he had a fascinating, but in many ways tragic, life, most of which you can learn about in the novel. When I looked at which passages I highlighted to potentially use in this review, all came from the sections narrated by Tesla.
Here are a couple more, to give you the flavor of the writing.

On his career and its impact: Drawer #53 is empty, though inside I detect the slightest odor of ozone. I sniff the drawer, inhaling deeply. Ozone is not what I am looking for. I close #53 and open #26. Inside there is a press clipping, something somebody once said about my work: "Humanity will be like an antheap stirred up with a stick. See the excitement coming!" The excitement, apparently, already came and went.

On his relationships with people: Having lived in America for fifty-nine years, I've nearly perfected my relationships with the pigeons, the sparrows, and the starlings of New York City. Particularly the pigeons. Humans remain a far greater challenge.

And also: Katharine nods numbly, confused, the hook I planted already beginning to tug painfully as I slip away. Robert stands behind her, broadening his shoulders, stunned by my sudden change. It is my fault. Here is friendship. Here is love. I take a step away from it. The bicycle has turned the corner. There goes invention. I have to catch it.

And about his favorite pigeon: She is pale gray with white-tipped wings, and into her ear I have whispered all my doubts. Through the years I've told her of my childhood, the books I read, a history of Serbian battle songs, dreams of earthquakes, endless meals and islands, inventions, lost notions, love, architecture, poetry—a bit of everything. We've been together since I don't remember when. A long while. Though it makes no sense, I think of her as my wife, or at least something like a wife, inasmuch as any inventor could ever have a wife, inasmuch as a bird who can fly could ever love a man who can't.

This is a moving and fascinating book about a modern day idealist, with a vision far ahead of his time.

1 comment:

Lisa said...

I felt the same ambivalence about this one. I absolutely agree about the parts about Tesla being as fascinating as the man himself was. I was a bit disappointed by the ending, as I recall (it's been a couple of years since I read it - in fact, I think it may be the first review I ever posted!).