Thursday, April 28, 2016

The Age of Edison: Electric Light and the Invention of America

The Age of Edison is a good companion piece to Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light.  Both trace how light changed our societies, mostly but not exclusively for the better.  Where Brilliant took a global view, The Age of Edison specialized, looking at the effect of electric light on America over the course of about 100 years.  It's a straightforward record of how electric light moved from an urban luxury to a necessity available to the most remote American communities.  Along the way, there were local disasters, corrupt companies, and moments of awe when the lights first came on.  The Age of Edison is engrossing and well-written, but there's not a lot to analyze.  Worth reading, but the facts rather than the depiction are worth discussing.

The Bridesmaid

I've had The Bridesmaid on my shelf for decades, since it's early-90s printing.  The book is a bit of a time capsule, a slim trade paperback with the Mysterious Press logo and a form on the back page to subscribe to The Armchair Detective.  The late-80s London depicted in the novel is also a bit of a throwback; a reminder that the exotic locale of my teenage Anglophilic dreams was a bit down at the heels after years of social and economic upheaval.

Phillip Wardman lives in this downtrodden London with his sisters and widowed mother.  He's mildly obsessed with a statue in his mother's garden and has an unnatural aversion to violence and death, obsessions which collide in the first chapter as he carries the statue to his mother's paramour's house after hearing about the abduction of his sister's former classmate.  The date (which includes all three children) does not go well and Phillip assumes he's seen the last of the statue.

A few weeks later, at his sister Fiona's wedding, Phillip meets the statute come to life.  Bridesmaid Senta Pelham is an aspiring actress who bears a freakish resemblance to Phillip's lost statue and the two begin an affair when Senta returns to the Wardman house to change back into her ordinary clothes.  As they grow closer, Philip gradually realizes that Senta has trouble distinguishing truth from fiction, but that there's just enough truth in her stories that he can't dismiss them outright.  Combined with her obsessive love, this leads Phillip to claim to have committed murder.  Senta then claims to have killed for Phillip - but has she, and whom has she killed?

Rendell used her Barbara Vine pseudonym to distinguish her psychological mysteries from the more straightforward ones.  While reading The Bridesmaid, I wondered why this one was published under her real name.  It features a narrator with imperfect insight into and knowledge of an unstable potential murderer, but there's something missing.  Perhaps it's the fact that the solution (which I guessed too early for my taste) is clear-cut.  I still don't know the identity of Jamie's mother, but I easily connected the deaths in The Bridesmaid.