I had never given much thought to the city of Buffalo until reading City of Light. Nor, for that matter, had I given much thought to electricity. Lauren Belfer fixed both of those oversights, and I am looking forward to her next book, A Fierce Radiance, which is about penicillin. She has a rare gift for making science interesting. (Confession: the workings of the material world are not, on the whole, compelling to me.) In many ways this book reminded me of a favorite historical thriller, Joseph Kanon’s Los Alamos, which did for the Manhattan Project what Belfer does for the power stations at Niagara.
She starts with an excellent narrator, Louisa Barrett, who is the headmistress of the private girls’ school in Buffalo, and a single professional woman. The action begins in 1901. Belfer gives Barrett a slightly ironic, slightly prim voice, effectively schoolmarmish. Most importantly, her narrator is a kind of liminal creature, able to swim in many different social currents in Buffalo without belonging anywhere. Belfer is also very good at applying pressure to her lead character, first from one quarter, then from another, until finally what seemed like an enviable existence is menaced from all sides. Best of all, the comfortable mesh of naïveté and complicity that makes upper-crust life function in Buffalo is exposed as the pages flip by, and poor Louisa ends up, well — sadder but wiser.
The pacing does bog down a bit: round about the half-way mark I started skimming the longer conversational passages, and I wondered if perhaps the novel would have worked better with 100 pages and a subplot or two removed. There’s just a little bit too much in the book — thoughts on child-rearing, on immigration, on the role of public utilities, on racism in the early twentieth century, on corruption in industry. I suppose in that way, the novel reflects the hypertrophic scale of its era. Naturally enough Buffalo’s Pan-American Exposition is a big plot device and we do get a vivid sense of the “more is more” philosophy that drove so many cultural and aesthetic decisions in those days.
Buffalo was not the only city at the turn of the century that was driven by the twin engines of science and industry. Its boosterism and optimism could probably be found in St. Louis, in Pittsburgh, in Denver, in Cleveland, cities we know now as having once been grand. Often they have a few surprisingly strong cultural institutions — art galleries, symphonies, parks laid out by Olmsted, a slew of Frank Lloyd Wright houses. I really enjoyed the way City of Light turned back the clock to that moment of peak optimism, and then poked around to see what was behind it.