Two Moons

Written by Thomas Mallon
Review by Sarah Johnson

By 1877 the Civil War has been over for twelve years, but its legacy remains. Cynthia May, the new human “computer” for the US Naval Observatory in Washington, DC, has spent nearly half her life in its shadow, mostly with devastating consequences. After her husband’s death in battle and those of her mother and only child not long afterward, Cynthia at thirty-five is weary of her unfulfilled life and finally ready to make some changes.

Her route to re-joining the civilized world takes two paths. The first is through Hugh Allison, an astronomer eight years her junior whom Cynthia sees as both her personal and professional savior. Because Hugh was too young to have been a soldier, he and Cynthia are too far apart for perfect understanding to spring up between them. Still, they are kindred spirits, both loners who choose their own paths and silently nurture their own ambitions. While Cynthia will settle for a mere home and family, Hugh has larger plans: he wishes to immortalize himself by broadcasting his image to the heavens.

Add to this mix Madame Costello, a kindly but nosy astrologer who serves as Cynthia’s guide. Through her, Cynthia encounters Senator Roscoe Conkling, who has his own plans for a political future as well as for the beautiful widow. While the title “Two Moons” easily refers to the newly-discovered satellites of Mars, it applies equally to Hugh Allison and Roscoe Conkling, two men who revolve around Cynthia, affecting her decisions and actions.

If the romance between Hugh and Cynthia is less than satisfying, despite the astronomical backdrop, both the setting and the characters of Two Moons are perfectly realized. Senator Conkling, a historical character, leaps from the page with his larger-than-life personality. Cynthia and Hugh, likewise, are sympathetic – if not always likable – individuals, whose motivations are understandable in the context in which they live. The language used throughout is eloquent yet somber, with the “miasmic vapors” of the polluted waters below the Observatory overshadowing all.

Those who enjoy literary historical fiction will no doubt enjoy this novel. The author’s language and style are its highlights, but the storyline stayed fresh in my mind long after I’d finished.