|History may be written by the victors, but the finest historical fiction can explore a more varied--and often more vivid--constellation of characters and truths. In his lustrous fifth novel, Thomas Mallon brings some real figures to complex life and creates several others who are so brilliantly present it's hard to believe they have no past. Set in the late 1870s in Washington, D.C., a welter of aspiration, instability, and malaria, Two Moons is as taut with energy and anticipation as its four main players. When the novel opens, 35-year-old Cynthia May is determined to escape her typing job at the Interior Department and become a human "computer" at the Naval Observatory. For much of her life, she has had little to calculate but her considerable losses: both her twin brother and her husband were lost to the war, and her daughter was lost to diphtheria. But things are about to change. When she sits for the required exam, Cynthia handily thrashes the competition. "She set about filling in the table, sprinkling the numbers like raisins into a cupcake tin." Like his contemporary Andrea Barrett, to whom the book is dedicated, Mallon artfully draws us into the powers and pleasures of science: |
Her columns grew longer, and if she squinted at them, the confetti of inklings began to resemble a skyful of stars. She had time to let her mind wander. The Magi's search for Bethlehem; the music of Milton's crystal spheres; the prognostications of the D Street astrologer in whose parlor Cynthia had lately spent a dollar she could not afford: they could all be reduced to these numbers. There was actually no need to squint and pretend that the digits were the stars. They were, by themselves, wildly alive, fact and symbol of the vast, cool distances in which one located the light of different worlds. Mallon is also wildly alive to his characters' emotions. Cynthia would very much like Hugh Allison, the handsome antic astronomer in charge of the exam, to pick her professionally and personally. With both goals in mind, she heads straight for her neighborhood astrologer. But Mary Costello, who has less of a head for the stars than for survival, is expecting an important senator. If all goes well, the charming charlatan can keep this VIP in her pseudo-planetary sphere for some time. It is Cynthia, though, who lets "the War God" in--and instantly holds as much attraction for him as Hugh does for her: "Roscoe Conkling--who had spent an active amatory life hoping never to be surprised by a second woman in any room where he had arranged to meet but one--drew back, though only for a moment."
And this is only the beginning. Over the course of his supple novel, Mallon teases out the agitations of love, power, and discovery. Cynthia, Hugh, Mary, and Conkling are each searching for different versions of "the choicest blessings of heaven." Of the four, Hugh's feverish aspiration may be the most tantalizing--even if his "immortal yearnings" cost him his career and life. Mallon is an artist of the intimate moment (witness the novel's heartbreaking coda), and in his hands Hugh and Cynthia are the very opposite of dull, sublunary lovers. In addition, as he has already displayed in Dewey Defeats Truman and Henry and Clara, the author is equally intrigued by political intrigue, and remakes Conkling in all his ambition, absurdity, and considerable threat. For Cynthia, the senator may be "a comet of highly doubtful periodicity," but her sharp-judging creator knows his reach is long and violent.
Two Moons is as lucid and mysterious as the stars some of its scientifics seek night after night. With his present dream of several past dreams, Thomas Mallon gathers his characters into the artifice of eternity. --Kerry Fried