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by Samantha Hunt

Pub Date: Feb. 7th, 2008
ISBN: 978-0-618-80112-1
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

In her second novel, Hunt (The Seas, 2004) imagines the final days of Nikola Tesla.

On New Year’s Eve, 1942, the 86-year-old inventor bitterly muses over his past: “I am broke. I have given AC electricity to the world…radar, remote control, and radio to the world, and because I asked for nothing in return, nothing is exactly what I got.” He talks to a pigeon and a statue of Goethe in Central Park, and he believes they reply—no wonder the staff at the Hotel New Yorker, where Tesla hasn’t paid his bill in months, think he’s crazy. He’s forbidden them to clean his room, but Louisa, a chambermaid who frequently snoops through the guests’ belongings, can’t resist reading some of his papers, a device that allows the author to provide backstory about Tesla’s rivalry with Edison, his love for the wife of a friend and his idealistic refusal to profit from the inventions he believes should be freely available to all. This material doesn’t fit comfortably with the story line about Louisa’s burgeoning romance with the mysterious Arthur and her father Walter’s yearning for his long-dead wife. When an old friend of Walter’s surfaces with the news that he’s built a time machine, the novel really goes off the rails: past and present, real and unreal are jumbled murkily together; Walter’s lengthy recollections of his wife (not quite the paragon he’d led Louisa to believe) awkwardly precede his disastrous flight above Queens in the time machine. Gorgeous descriptions of New York City in another age, an engaging portrait of imaginative but sensible Louisa and a poignant one of Tesla can’t disguise the fact that Hunt’s ambitious narrative structure simply doesn’t work. There’s much food for thought here and some very beautiful prose. Unfortunately, plot developments that come perilously close to being ludicrous undercut Tesla’s lyrical insistence that “wonders are possible here on Earth.”

A bold but failed attempt to combine magic realism and intellectual fiction.