Samantha Hunt's second book is a portmanteau of a novel. It's a love story. A father-daughter tale. A historical comedy of manners. A counterfactual autobiography of one of the world's greatest inventors. With time machines.
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Hunt's skillful yet slippery narrative arcs back and forth across time from the middle of the 19th century to the winter of 1943. Louisa Dewell, a chambermaid at the New Yorker Hotel, discovers that the hotel is the permanent home of Nikola Tesla, the godfather of electricity, whose inventions helped usher in the wireless age.
Tesla, however, is at the end of his run. At 86, he has no money, no laboratory, and no bazillion-dollar idea with which to reverse his fortunes. Dismissed by the scientific community and ridiculed by the press, Tesla putters in his two-room suite on the 33rd floor and tends to injured pigeons. Then along comes Louisa, who knows a thing or two about eccentrics.
Louisa's father, Walter, is a night watchman at the New York Public library who has never quite gotten over the death of his wife, Winifred, who passed while giving birth to their only daughter. Theirs is a curious relationship in which Louisa behaves more like an adult than her childlike father, who wanders the library stacks at night, reading whatever he pleases.
Walter is contacted out of the blue by childhood friend Azor with the surprising news that he has successfully created a time machine. Louisa, in turn, is reunited with an old classmate named Arthur Vaughn, whom she has no recollection of having ever met, but he keeps turning up everywhere she goes. These chance meetings strike Louisa as strange, but Arthur's handiness with tools endears him to Walter and Azor as they prepare their machine for their first voyage back in time.
This sets the stage for the strangest meeting of all: a reunion between Walter and his wife prior to her death that has disastrous consequences for everyone and will keep the reader enthralled until the last page.
If it sounds like a caper in a radio play, it's meant to, but Hunt does a marvelous job of juggling these narratives. She has a keen sense of which historical details to include and which to leave out — a daunting task considering the enormous breadth and depth of Tesla's bizarre career, the highlights of which include famous feuds with Thomas Edison, a friendship with Mark Twain, nervous breakdowns, prophetic visions, and plans for a death ray that caught J. Edgar Hoover's attention.
Each chapter is preceded by a quote that is intended to help orient the reader. While it's easy to keep tabs on Louisa in wartime New York, with Tesla it's considerably trickier as he narrates his story over the course of his long life. Unfortunately, the quotations reveal more than they should, like a movie trailer that gives away too much of the storyline and allows the reader to telegraph what should be some of the narrative's surprises.
Hunt's greatest strength is her ability to re-create scenes as they are experienced by a cast of very likable characters. She is a master of the extreme close-up. Louisa doesn't just huddle by the radio, listening to her favorite shows; she incorporates their frenetic plot devices and sound effects into the way she interprets the world. On two occasions, the reader is witness to the first blush of new love, and one wishes these scenes would never end.
The Invention of Everything Else is not just an inordinately well-written historical novel. Throughout the book, the characters experience things the reader knows are impossible. Men go back in time (perhaps). Inventors communicate with the stars (sort of). Young lovers fly like birds (at least for a little while). And why not? Doesn't invention require the kind of leap of faith the author asks readers to make? Is love even possible without springing headfirst into the unknown?
As these narrative flights of fancy dissipate, we are left with the novel's true subject: the destruction of innocence. It is a tragedy experienced not just by Louisa's family, but by every American alive in 1943.
When the United States entered World War II, it had righteousness on its side; but when all was said and done, American forces were responsible for unleashing the most destructive weapon the world had ever seen. There is a kind of misguided romance to the way it all unfolded, with soldiers going off in ships to meet the enemy face-to-face on the field of battle. By the end, combat was ruled by radar, rockets, atomic bombs and a host of technological terrors — enormous power wielded from afar, and Tesla saw it coming.
The Invention of Everything Else is a time machine of a novel that takes its readers back to a kindler, gentler New York, a time when “the dirty city became filled with delicate treasures.”
Who wouldn't want to take a trip like that?
THE INVENTION OF EVERYTHING ELSE | By SAMANTHA HUNT | Houghton Mifflin | 272 pages | $24 hardcover