Tag Archives: Boston

Orpheus Lost – Janette Turner Hospital

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In Orpheus Lost, Janette Turner Hospital turns the story of Orpheus and Euridice on its head. This time it’s Orpheus who goes missing and Euridice who descends into the underworld to find him.

Leela is a motherless southerner who escapes to Boston from her very small town through her mathematical genius. She leaves behind a slightly cracked Pentecostal father, the sister born as their mother died in childbirth, and a lifelong best friend, a boy named Cobb whose mother committed suicide and whose father has been prone to drunken, violent rages since his return from the Vietnam war.

Mishka is a very eccentric Australian from a family of refugees who escaped the Nazi death camps and settled in the rainforest. Music is the center of their broken lives, as it was in a cultured, prosperous existence before Hitler. Mishka grows up playing the violin and believing his unknown father is dead. Music propels him to Boston where he takes up the oud, a sort of Persian lute, and plays his violin deep underground in the subway. When Leela hears the heartbreaking lament from Orfeo ed Euridice, she is hypnotized and she and Mishka become lovers.

As Leela works on a post-doc research proposal, Boston is hit with a series of terrorist attacks and Mishka grows increasingly anxious and begins staying away from the apartment. Then Leela is picked up for questioning by a government-contracted security firm and interrogated for hours in a locked room—by an emotionally brutal and calculating Cobb. Mishka may be linked to a subway bombing—his father may be alive in Beirut and is also suspected of being a terrorist mastermind. Mishka disappears and Leela, unmoored in this landscape of alien information, descends into hell to find him—and the truth.

Orpheus Lost is a brilliant and beautifully written thriller. The emotional entanglements of the characters are, at first, very disturbing but quickly draw you into a murky realm where music is both a death sentence and the only hope. The story is strongly anti-war, anti-violence and anti-fairytale. Mishka’s innocence leads him into depths he can’t manage. If Leela gives into doubt, she will lose him forever.

Hell is made in the hearts of people damaged by an unforgiving world. The myth of Orpheus is an ancient and powerful story, reworked in this novel with contemporary events that simply underscore what has always been true—our heroes, heroines, lovers and lost souls are flawed and fragile. But they are valiant and resilient, too. The music is an audible expression of love and longing. The courage that will prevail is an unblinking gaze upon painful truths–and a stubborn refusal to look back.

Orpheus Lost: A Novel   Janette Turner Hospital | W. W. Norton & Company  2007

The Technologists – Matthew Pearl

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Matthew Pearl’s The Technologists is a classic thriller set in late nineteenth century Boston, in the early days of MIT. The first graduating class of the upstart university, built on landfill and operating under principles that challenged the Harvard model of education, came close to not receiving their diplomas. Historically, that was because MIT was not granted degree-awarding authorization until a few weeks before the scheduled graduation. Pearl invents a plot to obliterate Boston, aimed at silencing MIT and reversing the progress of science and technology, that nearly takes down the university.

Events in The Technologists are wonky but urgent and understandable. The plot is constructed around science as it intersects with the darker recesses of the human heart and the combination is volatile. A thick fog and wildly spinning compasses send ships crashing into each other and the docks in Boston Harbor. A horrifying moment in the downtown financial district kills and maims in a nightmare of melting glass, windows that liquefy and encase bodies before hardening, clocks with their faces permanently melted and time stopped. And even more devastating incidents loom.

Students at MIT engage in constant banter and battle with their Harvard counterparts—there is no love lost between the scientists of either university. Pranks become deadly and class distinctions lead to violence. MIT’s lone woman student, Ellen Swallow, is assigned a solitary lab in the basement and private tutoring to maintain propriety and isolate her from the men. A scholarship student, a senior class brain and a Harvard humanities washout who is a natural engineer team up to expose the mad scientist who is terrorizing Boston. When they find an empty basement lab to hatch plans and perform experiments to determine the methods of the killer, Ellen, a brilliant chemist, is drafted onto the secret team.

Pearl has created a very good thriller and a very good book. The real history that informs some of the plot provides a convincing backdrop as the tension mounts. The effort to unravel the intrigue demands more than a whodunit approach from the reader. Science supplies the clues but elements as disparate as envy, the Civil War, suffrage, family dysfunction, probable Asperger’s or mild autism, professorial careerism, the properties of metals, disbanded secret societies, the evolution of street lighting, wheat mold, and the labor movement of the late 1800s are integral to the solution. What seems fantastical for the time is merely prototype to the commonplace of today. The satisfying battle between good and evil is, of course, timeless.

The Technologists is complex—full of twists, turns, dead ends, and slippery characters. It might keep you up late, as eager as any scientist to see what transpires once the test tube is suspended over the flame.

The Technologists: A Novel   Matthew Pearl | Random House  2012