Downs’ debut novel dramatizes the life of Horace Wells, a mid-19th-century Connecticut dentist on a quest to eliminate pain.
Wells and his wife, Elizabeth, attend a show where volunteers inhale nitrous oxide. He enjoys how the gas makes him feel and immediately recognizes its possible medical applications. When he and his colleagues use it during the removal of one of his own teeth, he’s certain he has made a great discovery. After further experimentation on himself and volunteers, he asks William Morton, a Boston-based dentist and former business partner, to set up a demonstration at a prestigious hospital. But the gas doesn’t seem to work when Wells pulls a medical student's tooth. He suspects Morton of sabotage and has a mental breakdown. Meanwhile, Elizabeth urges him to recover, focus on dentistry, and have another child with her. Wells, however, is determined to change history and has sworn not to risk impregnating her again, because she almost died during the birth of their son. It comes as a surprise, then, when he sleeps with a patient. Other painful and somewhat forced episodes follow, including a trip to sell a new invention during which he shoots his injured horse, stays in a commune, and attends an ether-inhaling party that ends with a boy being tortured to death. Upon returning home, he learns that Morton has popularized the use of gases as anesthesia. He tries to set the record straight, but his deteriorating mental health, brought upon by continuous recreational gas trips, stands firmly in his way.
Downs succeeds in crafting a fast-paced narrative full of humor, vivid description, and lively characters. A few too many tangents and point-of-view shifts make it a more arduous journey than it might have been.