New York: The Novel delivers what it promises: A sprawling historical fiction that links generations of characters through significant events of the city's rich history. Beginning in the 1600s with the original Dutch settlers, we work our way through the Revolution, the Civil War, the Industrial Revolution, the Depression and into contemporary times. The cornerstone characters are the "old money" Master family, who trace their roots back to the original Dutch and English settlers on Manhattan island. Over the centuries, though, the story brings in tangential characters from all walks of life that range from slaves to Italian immigrants who land at Ellis Island to a middle-class Jewish family.
But much of the joy of this book is the little-known nuggets of historical fact, and how Rutherfurd relates these episodes to his characters. For instance, did you know that to quell the Panic of 1907, when widespread unscrupulousness in investing and banking practices nearly brought down the entire financial system, President Theordore Roosevelt handed $25 million to JP Morgan and basically said, "Save us"? And he did.
These bits of trivia (Wall Street is so-named because it at first literally was a wall that protected Dutch settlers from Indian attacks) are the take-aways from the book because looking back, it's tough to remember which Master character made a narrow escape from the 1863 New York Draft Riots or the name of the Italian immigrant who helped lay bricks for the Empire State Building as it went up during the Depression.
But that's okay, because this is an event-driven novel. For the most part, the characters are simply the vessels through which Rutherfurd allows his story of New York to flow. They're there to be representatives of their time and as a way to interface with the historical events. In a novel that spans 400 years, there's not time to give these characters a full emotional range.
James Michener, who invented this historically hefty genre, writes better than Rutherfurd does, in my view.
The book winds up telling the stories of Gorham Master, a rich Wall Street banker, and his wife Maggie O'Donnell, a lawyer and descendant of the Masters' 19th century poor servants from Five Points. Though it takes more than 800 pages to get to the one part of New York's story that will really resonate with readers, Rutherfurd does a very commendable job of fitting his characters into a dramatic and harrowing 9/11 narrative. The wait is worth it for this part.
Overall, if you're a fan of the Michener-esque long historical novel, you'll probably enjoy this. I'd give it 3.9 out of 5 stars (yes, just slightly below four stars). I learned a lot from this book and, for the most part, enjoyed the three weeks I spent with it. It also was a lot of fun to read this book before, during and after trip to New York — and then visiting Battery Park, Wall Street, Trinity Church, the Empire State Building and other historical landmarks, all which figure prominently in the story. So if you have similar plans, that'll probably bump up your enjoyment of the book as well.