Sunday, December 20, 2009

New York: The Novel - Edward Rutherfurd

For some reason not entirely clear to me at the moment I attempted to read Edward Rutherfurd's latest novel in the busiest week of the year at work. I rather enjoyed a number of his books but they tend to be epic, time consuming reads. Much to my own surprise I managed to finish it in time to write the review this weekend. Rutherfurd writes historical novels using what I think of as the Mitchener approach. Instead of focusing on people the main character is the book is a place. Usually a city. In this case, as the title suggests, it is New York. His timing is impeccable. In 1609 Henry Hudson claimed the region for the Dutch, four hundred years later this event has been widely commemorated in the city.

Rutherfurd chooses to begin his history of the city a bit later than what is usually considered its founding. The book starts in 1664, when New Amsterdam is already a flourishing colony about to be taken over by the English, and takes us all the way to present day New York with an epilogue that is set in 2009. All the main characters in the book are fictional but Rutherfurd also shows us glimpses of historical figures ranging from Peter Stuyvesant to Abraham Lincoln and from Enrico Caruso to J.P. Morgan.

The backbone of the book is formed by successive generations of the fictional Master family. This family of Dutch and English origin is present in the city almost from it's founding and witnesses the growth and change of the region. As their fortune rises and falls with that of the city, they interact with many groups that have inhabited New York though the ages. Secondary characters contain members of the local Lenape tribes, Dutch, English, Irish, German, Italian, Puerto Rican and Jewish immigrants as well as slaves and their descendants.

There is an awful lot to say on the history of New York, more even than could fit into this 860 page hardcover. The author has had to make some choices and as always these are debatable. I do not know an awful lot about the history or New York, in fact, I learned a great deal reading this book, so to me it seems Rutherfurd covers most of the important events to some degree. I found the part of the role of New York in the War of Independence particularly interesting. The Master family is torn on this subject, with one generation supporting the revolution and the other remaining loyalist. It must have been tempting to zoom out a bit and cover these great events but Rutherfurd manages to keep the story focused on the city and the influence on the revolution on the population.

He does more or less the same thing with that other great conflict on American soil, the Civil War. The general feeling in New York at the time is against going to war, even when war becomes inevitable this sentiment does not really change. I thought the chapter on the draft riots of 1863 was one of the best in the book. I guess this chapter combines the various currents in the city best. In large parts of the book, and this is one of the few points of real criticism I have on this work, Rutherfurd follows the money. The Masters are traders, bankers, brokers and generally well to do. They do suffer the occasional, and sometimes very severe, financial setback but they never quite end up in the gutter.

While to book shows us poverty the characters always seem to be able to avoid or escape the worst excesses that plagued 19th and 20th century New York. In a way it is the American dream on a smaller scale. Not everybody becomes a millionaire but real poverty is usually seen from a distance. What the novel shows to a greater extend is the downside of unrestrained capitalism. As the city goes though various cycles of booms and busts the author mercilessly exposes the corruption, appalling greed and crime associated with the big money in New York. A phenomenon that plagues the city from its earliest stages right up to Gorham Master, who has to find out the hard way that happiness cannot be expressed in dollars.

One could argue the choices the author makes in great detail. Being Dutch I would not have minded a bit more on the New Amsterdam phase of the city for instance but truth be told, the book manages very well without. No doubt some people will have some remarks of the depiction of slavery in New York. There's an awful lot more the author excluded than in the eyes of some readers warranted a place in the book. At the end of the day New York is a work of fiction though and as such it succeeds very well. Rutherfurd has written an engrossing history of the city, as far as I can tell he hasn't had to fill in a lot of blanks. His approach takes some getting used to since there is no one single character to follow and if you do like a particular character he or she is going only going to be around for a short while. The city is the star of the show and that is something the reader should not loose sight of. I think I like his novel The Forest a bit better but New York is not far behind.

Book Details
Title: New York: The Novel
Author: Edward Rutherfurd
Publisher: Doubleday
Pages: 862
Year: 2009
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-385-52138-3
First published: 2009

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