Part immigration story, part Midwestern pastoral, Kolaya’s charming debut maps the schisms of a small Illinois town that's divided over a proposal to build a Superconducting Super Collider at the local research lab.
Abhijat Mital arrived in Nicolet, Illinois, from India to take a prime research job at the National Accelerator Research Lab, starting a new American life with his wife, Sarala. But as Sarala has thrown herself into all things American, Abhijat is feeling the pressure of his ambitions. When the lab becomes a contender to house the new Superconducting Super Collider, it seems like his last chance—his only chance—to “make the kind of legacy in the physics world he’d always expected to.” Meanwhile, across Nicolet, Rose Winchester is forging an unconventional life in a conventional town. Her husband, Randolph, is an explorer who spends the majority of each year in remote pockets of the globe; her daughter, Lily, is a supremely precocious child with a distinctly un-childlike enthusiasm for academia. The two families, the novel’s dual anchors, are linked by more than just their outsider status: Lily and the Mitals' equally gifted daughter, Meena, are best friends, united by their curiosity and a passion for the World Book Encyclopedia] But as the debate over the super collider heats up, the town begins to split: the scientists fighting on behalf of discovery on one side, the skeptical longtime residents, worried for their safety (and their property values), on the other, progress pitted against tradition. And yet for all the novel’s earnest focus on local politics, the book is at its best and most nuanced when Kolaya turns her attention to the personal: Abhijat and Sarala’s marriage, Lily and Meena’s increasingly difficult friendship, and—above all—Abhijat’s internal struggle to come to terms with the reality of his career.
If the novel occasionally seems to lack subtlety—the phrase “on the nose” sometimes comes to mind—it's rescued by the sheer strength of its extremely inviting characters.