Title: The Longest Night
Author: Andria Williams
Publisher: Random House
Publication date: January 12, 2016
Summary (via Goodreads):
In 1959, Nat Collier moves with her husband, Paul, and their two young daughters to Idaho Falls, a remote military town. An Army Specialist, Paul is stationed there to help oversee one of the country’s first nuclear reactors – an assignment that seems full of opportunity.
Then, on his rounds, Paul discovers that the reactor is compromised, placing his family and the entire community in danger. Worse, his superiors set out to cover up the problem rather than fix it. Paul can’t bring himself to tell Nat the truth, but his lies only widen a growing gulf between them.
Lonely and restless, Nat is having trouble adjusting to their new life. She struggles to fit into her role as a housewife and longs for a real friend. When she meets a rancher, Esrom, she finds herself drawn to him, comforted by his kindness and company. But as rumors spread, the secrets between Nat and Paul build and threaten to reach a breaking point.
Based on a true story of the only fatal nuclear accident to occur in America, The Longest Night is a deeply moving novel that explores the intricate makeup of a marriage, the shifting nature of trust, and the ways we try to protect the ones we love.
Many thanks to Random House for sending me this electronic copy via NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.
Andria Williams makes a gorgeous authorial debut with The Longest Night, a story that explores one family's complex, tangled relationships with neighbors, with friends, and with each other. Williams throws us into a sleepy town where much of life revolves around the presence of one of the country's earliest nuclear reactors. From the start, we know that something's not quite right with the ol' CR-1, and this feeling of unease grows and grows until we reach a tipping point. It's hard to imagine that The Longest Night is based on a true story: the events feel like they're straight out of a science fiction plot, and the 1950s have never felt so iconic yet, strangely, so unimaginable.
The high tension setting provides the perfect backdrop for the messy interpersonal dynamics in the story. Interactions between Nat and Paul, husband and wife, feel more loaded somehow – as though the two are dancing on shaky ground. Every observation feels sharper, more significant, more pressing. Paul reflects on his life before Nat, while Nat reflects on who she was then and who she is now; and meanwhile you're sitting there thinking about the complexity of marriage and love and friendship – how we sometimes fall into things and how, for better or for worse, time turns relationships into something you had never expected.
And so, when Nat is presented with a choice, a fork in the road, it's difficult to say which way she should go. There's no black and white answer – Williams develops the story and these characters in a way that makes it so easy to understand and justify their actions and thoughts, even if you know that they're walking a fine line, teetering somewhere between status quo and free-fall. Throughout the book, you feel as though these characters are forever playing with something, some force, that is beyond them – whether it's the nuclear reactor, or the institution of marriage, or the expectations of society in the 50s... And maybe you know what they should do, how they should respond, but if you're being totally honest with yourself, you find that mostly you just want them to shirk the responsibilities and obligations, and instead choose the path that will give them the greatest happiness.
As I reflect on Williams' story, I'm realizing that this entire book is a study in character – in people, in who we are and who we become and how people affect us and shape us over time. At its heart, this is a story of life and desire and the values we carry with us. The characters in The Longest Night are fascinating: flawed and fucked up, and still there's something that keeps you turning the pages, wanting to know more about them, even if you can't.
And isn't that just so true to life? You can never know a person's entire story. All you can do is watch and observe and make sense of actions and try to draw out meanings from things and people that are unknowable. And there's something sacred about that. Andria Williams puts it brilliantly, this pleasure of not quite knowing:
I wanted to keep that moment where he was so grown-up and so perfect that I wasn’t quite sure it was really him. I wanted to keep it like I could have it forever and ever, over and over, that feeling of recognizing.
That's what this book is. It's not knowing. It's ambiguous. It's disturbing. It's unfair. It doesn't have a perfectly happily ever after ending – but it's okay, because this book is a reflection of life and there's no such thing as a neat resolution. And by the time you get to the last page, you don't really want the disingenuous fairytale ending anyway. What you want is something that feels real – and that real-ness is what you get. The Longest Night feels a little bit like a sad song, but it's a song you want to play over and over again.