Based on the only fatal nuclear accident to happen in the United States, The Longest Night is an engrossing novel set in the late 1950s in a remote military town in Idaho. It follows a young couple, Paul and Natalie (Nat for short), as they adjust to their new life in the town. Paul is part of the Army Specialist team overseeing the CR-1, one of the first nuclear reactors in the USA. At first, their lives are full of promise. They’re chasing the American Dream and life is sweet.
But Nat struggles with the loneliness of being in the house all day, every day, in a small town miles from anywhere. She looks after their two daughters, Sam and Liddie, and she appreciates that she is fortunate to have the “exhausting luxury” of staying at home with them. But she is a free-spirited character — after growing up in California with an outdoorsy lifestyle which matches her summery nature, it’s hard for her to fit into the expectations of small-town Idaho. She isn’t readily accepted among the coiffured army wives on the base and she finds it hard to relate to them, with their outwardly perfect lives and spotless houses.
Slowly, this tension simmers and starts to break down her close relationship with Paul. And Paul has his own worries, which he is not sharing with Nat for fear of scaring her. He has discovered that the nuclear reactor has faults that could put his family and the rest of the community in grave danger, and these issues are being covered up by his superiors. Paul’s hands are tied: he tries to speak up, but his sergeant won’t listen…
The Longest Night is an impressive debut novel which drew me into another time and place. The characters are believable and three-dimensional; as a reader, you genuinely care about what happens to them. With sections alternating between Paul and Nat’s perspectives, Andria Williams builds up a complete picture of their lives, and it’s the little details scattered throughout the book that make it so convincing.
Williams is a skilled writer, giving an insightful portrayal of military life and the trials that test a quiet suburban marriage. The Longest Night has been compared to Richard Yates’ classic novel, Revolutionary Road, in which Frank and April Wheeler struggle with living in the social constraints of 1960s suburbia. I can see the resemblance in the well-drawn characters — while the plot is based around real historical events, the strength of The Longest Night is in its character-driven narrative.
After reading the book, I felt that I learned more about what it was like to be a military spouse in the 1960s. When I finished the last page of the book and turned to the author bio, it wasn’t a surprise to discover that Andria Williams is a military spouse herself: her husband is an active-duty naval officer. She has clearly drawn from her own experiences, which add authenticity, to write this compelling and realistic novel.
Disclaimer: I received an advance review copy of The Longest Night from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. You can find out more about the book, the author and the real-life history on which it’s based at Andria Williams’s website. She also runs The Military Spouse Book Review blog, publishing book reviews and promoting the writing of female veterans and military spouses.
The Longest Night is in bookstores now, published by Penguin Random House.