KATHLEEN CAMBOR'S FIRST novel, The Book of Mercy, about a firefighter-turned-alchemist and his psychiatrist daughter, was such an adroit portrait of desperate escapism and restrained desire that it's a real disappointment to find her latest volume has wings of lead. In Sunlight, in a Beautiful Garden eschews all the elements that made Cambor's first book such a success. Instead of droll, haunting characters, there is dead, hard realism; instead of intimate depictions of heartache, there is broad social sweep.
Set at the end of the 19th Century, Cambor's new novel revivifies a forgotten cataclysm: the bursting of the South Fork Dam in southern Pennsylvania. The proportions of the incident (2,209 people killed, 20 million tons of water unleashed, an entire city destroyed) and the people involved (Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, Andrew Mellon) make it ideal for a rousing historical novel, but Cambor's panoramic view rarely brings us close enough to the action. Almost every scene is set in the contemplative pause before or after a decisive moment. We see Carnegie in his dressing room after he goes horseback riding with his autumn love, Louise Whitfield: "At forty-five he was flushed as a boy, throwing his riding coat carelessly across a slipper chair." Cambor never shows him actually interacting with the woman.
This circumspect technique works even more poorly with the characters whose lives are entirely fictional. How are we to understand a steelworker's intellectual zeal if we never see him reading a book? Or believe in his support of the labor movement if we never see him in the rush of a political meeting? Where The Book of Mercy palpably conveyed the desires of each character, In Sunlight, in a Beautiful Garden leaves readers looking through the wrong end of the telescope.
There are some veins of gold. Cambor's portrayal of the wealthy members of the South Fork Fishing Club (who are responsible for the failed dam's shoddy construction) and of the working-class residents who were destroyed by the flood displays a social acuity that rivals Thorstein Veblen's The Theory of the Leisure Class. Her use of period detail is impeccable, and her language, line by line, is elegance itself. But a novel is not a sociological treatise. Without the breath and blood of vibrant characters, or the thrumming momentum of a suspenseful plot, this book remains waterlogged.