One billion dollars. That’s the value of electric light in 1888. Or, that’s the staggering sum for which Thomas Edison is suing George Westinghouse, his rival in the electricity gambit, for sole control of who lights up America. For his defense, Westinghouse hires a fresh-out-of-college lawyer named Paul Cravath. Together, they plot against the man beloved by Americans as the Wizard of West Orange and backed by the wealthiest man in the country, J. P. Morgan. Paul’s task seems insurmountable.
Enter two unlikely allies: Nikola Tesla and Agnes Huntington. Tesla becomes a naïve pawn in the battle between Westinghouse and Edison, and Paul is blind to their manipulations. Agnes Huntington, a society belle and renowned singer, initially reaches out to Paul to defend her in a small contract dispute, but ends up befriending Tesla—and defending him against the two capitalists—and a romance begins between her and Paul.
The basic facts in this novel are true: There was a war for currents with Paul Cravath at the center of it all. The main characters are real—including the relationship between Paul and Agnes—and Graham Moore does justice in rendering them all as honestly as possible, but there are a number of liberties taken in the general timeline which Moore admits in the notes. For me, these liberties were somewhat off-putting. By condensing the history, the book feels more like a screenplay than a novel. Moore’s writing is sharp and as energized as his topic, but the chapters read like quick vignettes, making it hard to connect with the characters. One thing can be said: Despite the screenplay nature, this is a riveting book that will hold your attention and will illuminate many on the birth of the electric light in America. Part legal thriller, part romance, injected with a history lesson. Worth the read.
Originally appeared in: Historical Novels Review, Nov. 2016