Thursday, June 17, 2010

New York: The Book Review

Edward Rutherfurd's 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.
That said, it's also worth mentioning that Rutherfurd's style can be a bit grating at times. Even during the longer sections that span a few hundred pages and several years with the same characters, Rutherfurd writes in page to page-and-a-half sections, which gives the narrative a bit of a choppy, start-and-stop feeling. 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.


  1. Your review definitely makes this book sound good. I read probably about 200 pages around Christmastime but then set it aside because I just don't have the time to invest! I've been thinking about pulling it back out and reading a little at a time. It just seems like so much! But what you said about the little facts learned is definitely interesting and I think that's a great way to learn the history about a place. And I want to get to the end now that you said it's worth it! Definitely need to pick that one back up...

  2. So the 9/11 part is done well, huh? That's a pleasant surprise. Do you think it would hold up for someone who lives in NY and knows the city really well already?

  3. @Jenny - Yeah, it's definitely worth picking up again. I didn't really feel like I was enjoying the novel until immediately after the 200 page mark. When he gets into the story of John and James Master and their roles in the War for Independence, the novel really takes off. And, again, just for sheer chills - the 9/11 section is fantastic (if kinda short)...Thanks for the comment!

  4. This is now officially on the giant summer TBR list!

  5. @the Ape - Yes, the 9/11 part is done well - it's nothing that'll rival Falling Man or Let the Great World Spin, but I felt like it was an adequate and appropriately honorable way to tell that story. There could've been so much more and at times he toed the sensationalism line, but Rutherfurd kept it brief and then just left it alone. Nice tactic, I thought, as a Brit writing about the American national tragedy. I really did enjoy that section!

    Anyway, for someone who knows New York very well, the book certainly won't have the same Wow Factor as it did for someone like me who still thinks of New York with a sense of novelty. But that may not matter. I live in Chicago and enjoyed The Adventures of Augie March because I liked when stuff took place fictionally right down the street from me, or whatever. And while I'm certainly not suggesting Rutherfurd and Bellow are even in the same tri-county area or New York and Augie March had the same goals, I would say that New York could hold up for you for the same reason — because of the familiarity factor, not despite it.

  6. @bibliophiliac - Hope you enjoy it! I'll be interested to see your thoughts...

  7. I have seen this in your "Currently Reading" box and couldn't wait for your review! I think this one needs to go on my list. I have a love affair with New York and it's history so I think this would be right up my ally. Great review! Thanks!

  8. Hey Greg - just stopping by on the hop. Cool review, I've been looking for something like this.
    BTW - re: one of your earlier posts - the Telegraph did a riposte list to the NY Times list of best novelists under 20 by producing the 20 best British writers under 20. Thought you might be interested:
    Cheers! Lyndsey

  9. Stopping by from the hop. I really enjoyed your review- you're a great writer!

  10. Great review! I found you on the Blog Hop, and I'm so glad I did! Now I can add another male book blogger to my list (making a grand total of three!).

    I love all things Michener, so I am going to put New York on my list. I still remember reading Chesapeake and how desperately I wanted to go explore the marshes when I was finished. Can't wait to read more of your stuff!

  11. @Lauren - Yeah, it took a little while to get through it. I also really love New York and its history, so you're right, this book is perfect for you!

    @Kah - Thanks for stopping by.

    @teadevotee - (Great name, btw)...Thanks for the link - great list! Zadie Smith is one of my favorites, and many others on the list I've heard about but haven't read. Lots of great possibilities!

    @Amy - Thanks for coming by, and for the kind words. ;)

    @Heather - I enjoyed Chesepeake, too! Yes, there is a definite dearth of male book bloggers - thanks for adding me to your list. ;)

  12. Nice review! I also read and reviewed New York ( but really enjoyed your take on the book. Kathy

  13. i'm very impressed that you made it all the way through - i have a copy of his 'london' on my shelf that i can't quite seem to motivate myself to start, mostly because with the limited reading time i have these days i can tell it's going to take me WEEKS to get through it! maybe one for a resort type holiday where i can lie around all day reading :-)

  14. Found you through the book hop. I love NY so this looks like a really interesting read. Great review!

  15. @Kathy - Great review! Thanks for the link - I just left you a comment on your review.

    @mummazappa - Yeah, Rutherfurd definitely requires a significant time investment. I've often contemplated taken on London, too, but can't get it off the shelf for the same reason you mention.

    @Kimberly - Thanks for coming by! I also love NY, and that certainly added to my enjoyment of this book. Check it out!

  16. Oh! Change a few words and add more banks and more zeros to the money figure and this could be today:

    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.

    Seriously, sounds like an interesting book; I will have to check it out!

    Julie @ Knitting and Sundries

  17. Your blog title is one of the best I've run across thus far!

    book reviews