Ponderous second novel by veteran publishing exec Lawrence juxtaposes the fitful advance of early-20th-century American technology with the characters’ stalled romantic aspirations.
It’s love at first sight for Harriet and Toma when they meet briefly in Naples in 1908. She’s a 14-year-old upper-crust Yankee on vacation; he’s a 16-year-old Serb whose full backstory can be found in Montenegro (1997). Six years later, Harriet keeps the books at her family’s ironworks in Connecticut. Visiting New York with her deaf father to secure a contract to make wheels for subway cars, she discovers Toma serving as top assistant to the cars’ manufacturer. Sent by his boss to stay at the ironworks while they “smooth out” the production process, Toma meets Horatio, a canny black man who operates the giant water wheel, and Olivia, Horatio’s “wife” since she turned 12. A horrifying accident kills Horatio, cripples the wheel and dooms both contract and ironworks; on the plus side, it inspires Toma to invent a metal wheel, a big leap forward. He winds up in bed with Olivia, who falls in love with him. Toma still pines for Harriet, but accepts fatalistically her marriage to local banker and U.S. Senator Fowler Truscott. Why would a 53-year-old bachelor enter a marriage he does not consummate? Why is it so hard for the spirited Harriet to “balance the claims” of her two suitors? And why doesn’t Toma fight for his dream woman? There are serious fault lines here. The author is on more solid ground with Toma’s invention of a turbine and the entrance of two historical figures: Coffin, chairman of General Electric, and Steinmetz, the electrical engineering genius who foresees a national grid protected by lightning-arrestors. Toma, by now on GE’s payroll, becomes the great man’s “lightning keeper.” This at least is a coherent storyline, unlike the endless yearnings of Harriet and Toma, who worships the Senator’s wife unavailingly and abandons poor Olivia like roadkill.
Machines supply the light here; the people are dim indeed.