Review: The Last Days of Night

Did Thomas Edison actually invent the light bulb? The late 1800s were an incredible time of creation and establishment in America, and Graham Moore’s new historical fiction novel, The Last Days of Night, is a perfect way to explore the big names and excitements of that time.

thelastdaysofnightAbout the book: Many an inventor in the late 1800’s knew the impossible challenges of competing against Thomas Edison and his new system of mass production for ideas and inventions. One such competitor, George Westinghouse, even knew the difficulties of being faced with a one-billion-dollar law suit from Edison, known popularly as “the Wizard of Menlo Park.” The patent war, the electrical current war, the unprecedented shock of such an expensive law suit–all of these factors ruled Westinghouse’s life and business in 1888 as New York–and the rest of the country–slowly lit from top to bottom with new electrical lights. Westinghouse may have generated better ideas, ideas more suited to mass market, and yet Edison held the legal claim on the light bulb. Westinghouse hired Cravath, a young lawyer straight out of Columbia Law, to defend his right to produce his own electric lights. Cravath, though inexperienced, is a crafty lawyer who takes his one case so seriously that he faces public humiliation, bankruptcy, spies, death, expulsion from his law firm, the loss of the woman he loves, and much more, all to win the biggest law suit in American history.

“All stories are love stories.  Paul remembered someone famous saying that. Thomas Edison’s would be no exception. All men get the things they love. The tragedy of some men is not that they are denied, but that they wish they’d loved something else.”

There is something incredible about reading the names of real historical giants in a fictional work and seeing them navigate the world an author has created. Thomas Edison is a name nearly everyone in America has heard, but to me, at least, he has always been a ghostly figure, larger than life and frozen in black and white like the photographs that depict him. In The Last Days of Night, I had the chance to imagine him as a living, breathing person–to understand his motivations, to overhear his conversations, and consider him as a human who, like the rest of us, experiences triumphs but also failures. Edison, Westinghouse, Tesla, and Cravath are all people who’ve made a significant impact on America, and this book allows readers to view them as characters who struggle and strive like the rest of us.

” ‘A man, as a general rule, owes very little to what he is born with. A man is what he makes of himself.’ -Alexander Graham Bell”

In The Last Days of Night, the 3rd person narration follows new lawyer Paul as he becomes more and more immersed in the Edison v. Westinghouse case, and tries to add another client to his list, the charming Agnes Huntington who seems to like the eccentric foreign inventor Nikola Tesla more than Paul. She helps Paul care for the unusual scientist, and to chase him back to Westinghouse’s engineering team to design a light bulb that won’t infringe on Edison’s patent if they lose the case. Edison, however, proves himself resourceful as he sets out to thwart all of Paul’s plans toward progress, and finds no room for morality in his endeavors to win at all costs. Paul begins the novel with very little knowledge of electricity and its workings, allowing the reader to refresh his or her memory of the science behind the light bulb or learn the information for the first time along with Paul. He’s crafty, but he’s fresh out of school and inexperienced, which makes him an ideal guide for the reader who knows little about the birth of electricity and the modern law system, and an amusing one for the reader with a firmer grasp on the history. The wide range of emotions and motivations between the three main scientists in this book give the reader a broad view of this occupation in the 1880’s, and builds an intriguing cast of unique characters each with their own strong ideals.

” ‘Be alone–that is the secret of invention: be alone, that is when ideas are born.’ -Nikola Tesla”

The Last Days of Night contains a little of everything–science, arson, romance, family drama, friendship, legal intrigue, financial intrigue, political intrigue, and, of course, a plethora of history. The short chapters and their piquing titles keep readers turning pages. At the beginning of each chapter the reader also finds a quote from a prominent historical figure that hints at the content within (see the accredited quotes above). Although it’s fictional, this book reads like a a fun history of electrical science for the layperson. It won’t teach you how to build your own circuit or light bulbs, but it informs the reader of controversial origins and incites hours of interest in the simple statement that many people stop at: “Thomas Edison invented the light bulb.” A lot more effort lies behind that single sentence than the words seem to imply.

” ‘This is what science is, Mr. Cravath. This is what discovery is. It’s not a flash of color. It’s not a moment of divine inspiration. It is not the hand of God reaching down to press the pointed finger. It’s work. It’s drudgery. It is trying ten thousand different shapes of bulb. Then trying ten thousand different air fillings. Then, yes, ten thousand different filaments. It is realizing that those are the three components that matter and then trying ten thousand times ten thousand times ten thousand combinations until one of them works.’ [-Thomas Edison]”

The only fault I could find in this book was the pacing that ran a little slowly at times. Historical fiction generally takes me a little longer to read, and I began  The Last Days of Night anticipating that it would take me a little longer than my last book, and that it would probably be dense. Fortunately, it did not seem dense at all, and much of the story was thrilling enough to read quickly and easily. I would not, however, call this book a thriller, and there were a few instances where the action and intrigue lagged a bit. The tension, however, is constantly growing, and keeps the reader pressing onward to discover how the plot threads will come together at the story’s end.

“Stories reach conclusions, and then they go away. Such is their desperately needed magic.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. For some reason, I find this time period fascinating to read about. America has been its own country for over a hundred years by the last couple decades of the 1800s, but it feels like the time when the modern nation was established; ways of life were still distinctly different from our current habits, but not so dissimilar and strange that it’s impossible to picture what it would have been like to live there. I’m only mildly interested in science, and even less interested in law, but this book kept me engaged with the story from start to finish. I was surprised at how thoroughly I enjoyed learning more about Edison and Tesla, and even men I’d never heard of, like Westinghouse and Cravath. It didn’t impress me quite as much as other books I’ve read from this time period, but some of the reveals toward the end of the story would make an eventual reread interesting, and I’m glad I finally picked it up for this first read. Anyone interested in American history–even just a little–should read this book.

Further recommendations:

  1. If you’ve read and enjoyed The Last Days of Night and are interested in learning more about this time period, pick up The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson. This one’s a nonfiction book that reads like fiction and focuses on the construction of the World’s Fair exhibition on Chicago in 1893. The narration alternates between the architect of “the White City” and a serial killer who takes advantage of  Chicago’s anonymity and its influx of travelers who’ve been reeled in by the World’s Fair.
  2. If you’ve read and enjoyed The Last Days of Night but want something even more fictionalized from this time period, try Church of Marvels by Leslie Parry. This one is also set in New York in the early 1890’s, but its purpose is aimed toward lending a sense of the city’s character and the oddities of the time. The novel features an experienced member of a Coney Island side show, an impoverished street cleaner who finds an abandoned baby, a patient who’s been forced into an insane asylum that no one ever leaves, and a whole lot more. It’s a wild ride through the darker sides of the city. You can find my complete review of this book here.

What’s next: I’m currently reading Attachments by Rainbow Rowell. This one’s also a bit historical, though it’s only set as far back as 1999, but that year is perfect for the e-mail monitoring man who’s a little lost in his own life and a little caught up in reading about his beautiful coworker’s. This is a romance novel, my first Rowell read, and so far it’s been a fun experience. My full review for this book will be posted shortly.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

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