Novels, regardless of genre, are usually centered around a few different things: characters and their development, a particular plot line, or a certain style of narrative. Electric City by Elizabeth Rosner contains a wonderful variety of characters and a compelling human story, but the true center of the book is a place: Electric City in upstate New York. It's the place where Thomas Edison built his factories in the late 1800's, building a community full of ambition and inspiration. This city and its promise of a better future are what brought Charles Steimetz to America. There he and his scientific mind became a part of the city's storied history. The year was 1919.
Fifty years later, the city is still standing. But times have changed and with them the challenges that Electric City faces. These struggles are represented by three teenage friends: Henry, the son of a prominent Dutch family, the perfect ideal of America's golden boy; Sophie, the daughter of Jewish immigrants, caught straddling the line between her parents' tradition and the new, rapidly changing society around her; and Martin, a member of the Mohawk tribe and grandson of Joseph Longboat, Charles Steimetz's best friend. Each of these characters has a strong connection with Steimetz, although they may be unaware of it or don't think much of it. But these connections, and Electric City itself, are the heart of the story.
Themes of cycles, like the life of a city or the journey of a family, are very prevalent throughout the book. These dovetail nicely with ruminations on "progress," how it's impacted Electric City over the years as well as the environment, ethnic identity, political attitudes and family relations. Although Henry, Sophie and Martin come from very diverse backgrounds, they are all caught up in the same movement of the world around them. It impacts who they are, how they see themselves, and how they fit into the world with each other and as individuals.
I find it very difficult to define a central conflict in this book, since it deals with the ebb and flow of the life of Electric City and the lives of the people who live there. But that doesn't mean that it wasn't an engaging story. Quite the opposite, in fact. The different ways that Henry, Sophie and Martin developed as people, and seeing how their struggles mirrored some of the thoughts that Steimitz had in the same place years before them, kept me curious about how they'd come through their individual struggles, and who they would become. Would they remain close? What would ultimately decide where they went in life, and how would Electric City help to determine that outcome?
Rosner conveys the characters and their feelings with a lyrical prose that went well with the poetic depiction of the cycles of a city, the cycles of human relationships, and the changes that take place in self-perception among the characters. To me, the flow of words blended with the flow of time in the story, carrying me along on a steady stream that was removed from but still very close to the protagonists.
If you're interested in immigrant stories in conjunction with the development of science in the West, or are just looking for an insightful read about the way our paths cross and meander through life, be sure to pick up a copy of Electric City by Elizabeth Rosner.
See more of Jenny's book picks at villagebooks.com.