Based on a true event, Andria Williams’ novel The Longest Night narrates the difficulties in the marriage of a young military wife and her husband, whose growing distance from each other competes with the threat of an unstable nuclear reactor.
Nat and Paul Collier move with their two young daughters to Idaho Falls, where Paul is scheduled to supervise one of America’s first nuclear reactors. The year is 1959, and as an Army Specialist Paul realizes that this move is significant for his career in the military. It’s the reason he wishes his wife, Nat, showed more enthusiasm on his behalf, even if life in the small military town is nothing short of drab.
Paul soon finds that things are not running as smoothly as they should. The nuclear reactor has proven unstable a number of times, with reports of its numerous issues mysteriously disappearing at the hands of his brawny superior.
Nat finds she’s not fitting in with the rest of the military wives that inhabit Idaho Falls. Unhappy and friendless, she establishes an unlikely friendship with Esrom, a Mormon auto mechanic who helps Nat after an unfortunate mishap with her car.
Predictably enough, Nat finds herself attracted to this man who shows her far more attention than her husband does. When Paul is forced to go on a military tour to the Arctic for six months after a heated fight with his supervisor, Nat is left alone with their two small daughters and pregnant with a third. Unwisely, she seeks out Esrom with more frequency, not realizing that she is placing herself and Paul in the front lines of the gossip wire. It isn’t long before tongues begin wagging about Nat and Esrom’s “special” relationship.
While The Longest Night is an enticing read, particularly for the real-life facts and events of the unstable nuclear reactor, the melodrama between Nat, Paul and Esrom becomes tiresome. Nat is either too simple-minded or naïve to realize that having a man in her house day after day when her husband is away will compromise her. She tells herself that there is nothing wrong in her friendship with Esrom, but she confesses to having dreams about him and fantasizing what her life would be like at his side.
For his part, Esrom forgets all propriety and wordlessly begins to move in on a pregnant married woman, who is very evidently looking for nothing more than a surrogate husband in the absence of her own. Paul is also at fault for the situation; his inability to properly communicate his worries about the reactor to his wife begins to drive a big wedge between them.
When he goes away for six months, the marriage is already showing cracks. Nat begins to look towards the first person who shows her kindness, companionship and an interest for her well being. It’s not entirely far-fetched that she develops an infatuation and an unhealthy attachment to Esrom, which puts her marriage, her family, and her reputation in dire straits.
Andria William’s The Longest Night delves deeply into the components of a marriage and its fragility in the absence of communication, while exploring an important real life event in American history. Conversely, the television-style love triangle between Paul, Nat, and Esrom is an element the novel didn’t need. It frequently feels like the character of Esrom was merely added to create a tangible foil for Paul, and to make Nat delve in childish and superficial fantasies. Fortunately, this doesn’t take away much from Williams’ excellent narrative, and her skilled and accurate writing of historical fiction, certainly makes up for the detractions.