The Longest Night by Andria Williams, review by Bruce Jacobs

In January 1961, an early army nuclear reactor west of Idaho Falls exploded, killing three operators in what is the only United States nuclear accident with immediate fatalities. Feeding off this little-known piece of history for her first novel, Andria Williams builds a nuanced story of marriage, military life, fledgling nuclear technology and small-town habits during this time of transition from the placid 1950s to the turbulent '60s. Set in the suburbs of Idaho Falls and within the restricted reactor compound 40 miles away, The Longest Night captures the details of an era when Soviet missiles were the country's greatest fear, and the stay-at-home mom/breadwinner dad family was society's norm.

Paul Collier joined the army at 16 and married the rambunctious San Diego beauty Nat at age 20. With two young daughters, they move to a nondescript ranch house in Idaho Falls where Paul begins a new tour in the army's nuclear energy program. His assignment is to monitor and maintain an aging prototype reactor. The product of a "graphed and gridded army life, with all its specifics and regulations and endless acronyms and isolated bases," he doesn't complain despite the obvious borderline condition of the reactor. He's all army: "His job was simply to do his job... keep the machine running, keep the feedwater valves pumping and the rod drive seal from leaking and the pressure from getting too high or too low."

Balancing the stress of Paul's growing safety concerns and conflict with his commanding officer Mitch, Williams describes the strains on Nat and the military wives left at home to shuffle preschoolers to playgrounds, keep house and gossip among themselves about the unpredictability of military life. They reluctantly accept their roles, knowing that "men were the providers and the doers and the protectors of everything--finances, morals, property--and yet there was something off about them." Nonetheless, the wives meticulously arrange dinner parties and barbecues even though money is tight and meatloaf is the potluck default dinner.

Just as Nat becomes pregnant again, Paul's frustration boils over. He confronts Mitch about safety at the reactor, and in retaliation, Mitch redeploys him for six months to a defense reactor base in Greenland. Restless and alone with two young kids and one on the way, Nat befriends a local rancher who rescues her when her car breaks down. Not only grateful, she also becomes obsessively attracted to his easy-going attention and cowboy good looks. Rumors make their way to Paul, who on his return to Idaho Falls grows more taciturn and moody as the reactor continues to hiccup and his marriage frays. Something's got to give. With confident ease Williams addresses these tensions of work and family, and brings The Longest Night to an uneasy conclusion.

Bruce Jacobs's review first appeared in Shelf Awareness.

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ISBN: 9780812997743
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Published: Random House - January 12th, 2016