Note: This review is by my husband Jim.
On a foggy night in 1868, all the ships in the Boston Harbor find that their compasses and other instruments inexplicably spin out of control, and because of the poor visibility, several ships collide. Shortly thereafter, the glass in the windows of the businesses in the central city begins to melt! The glass windows become liquid, but then as they drain out of their frames they reconstitute into glass and shatter as they hit the ground, causing some death and a fair amount of destruction. In an effort to identify the cause of the disasters, the city fathers contact Harvard’s leading scientist, Professor Agassiz, a biologist who has not yet bought into that new absurdity, Darwin’s theory of evolution. Fat chance that this guy will solve the problem. [In real life, Agassiz even once defined a species as “a thought of God,” declaring that “Natural History must in good time become the analysis of the thoughts of the Creator of the Universe.” Darwin’s Origin of Species, he insisted, “contributed nothing new to the understanding of nature.”]
It so transpires that there is another academic institution of higher learning in Boston, M.I.T., but it is only four years old in 1868 and is not held in the same high regard as Harvard. In fact, Harvard students openly disdain the technocrats, whom they consider less cultured. The boys from M.I.T. are eager to show the police their scientific knowledge, but police aren’t interested, and in fact, they warn the young scientists to stay away from the case. So the boys (and one woman – also a real historical character) have to do their investigating secretly so as not to be discovered by the very people they are trying to help.
The story takes some fairly interesting twists and turns, but the whole premise is highly implausible and the science isn’t even good science fiction. The author, Matthew Pearl, seeks to recreate the atmosphere of 19th century Boston by having the characters speak in a very stilted, fustian manner. For example, much of the writing is like this:
“Hammie had unleashed his wrath before Marcus could reach him. ‘Take your rocks and rioting elsewhere, you ruffians! All the scum of the trades with their bluster won’t frighten a Tech man.’”
And pity Ellen Swallow, in real life MIT’s first woman student, whose memory has been defiled with bad dialogue:
“When I was at Vassar, the girls were as full of slang as any boy I ever heard. Every sentence began with ‘I vow!’ until I could only dream of cotton in my ears and solitude.”
My heavens, Miss Swallow, I too would only dream of cotton in my ears and solitude.
Evaluation: Pearl’s earlier book, The Dante Club, was more successful in evoking the historical era, and featured a much more plausible and interesting plot. I finished this book, but it was not a fascinating read.
Published by Random House, 2012