New York: The Novel
By Edward Rutherfurd, Doubleday 2009
I read this book a couple of weeks ago and I thought I’d review now while the book was still fresh in my mind. Rutherford is often presented as the successor to James Michener in his ability to produce a multi generational historical novel. I had read his novels about Ireland and England (Sarum) and enjoyed them, so I was looking forward to New York and not put off by its 800 plus pages. The history of NYC from the founding of the city by the Dutch with the American Indians through post 9/11 New York is all chronicled here. All the major ethnic groups (Dutch, English, Indians, Africans, Italians, Irish, and others) get a character in the narrative. The “melting pot” of America is seen through the successive generations of family characters presented. The events in the early history of the city right up to the American Revolution were very well presented and you actually cared about the characters. I liked the presentation of the Dutch settlement of the city, almost hard to accept the descriptions of lower Manhattan and reconcile them with present day NYC. The first half of this book was markedly better than the second. From the nineteen century forward I think the character development lagged the story. The historical events were all there – civil war draft riots, the panic of 1893, the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, events in 1929, WWII, 9/11 – but the people involved in them seemed pretty one dimensional. I did like the chapters around constructing the Empire State Building, maybe because there was new information for me. The author in his desire to leave no event untold (and to keep the book with fewer than 1000 pages) sacrificed character motivation and plot complexity. Horrific events like the Triangle Factory fire are presented with no emotion and little detail. I got a feeling that Rutherfurd was checking the boxes and ensuring all events got a mention and in many cases not much more.
This book is not in my opinion as good as some of Rutherfurd’s previous efforts. I’d have a difficult time recommending this to all but the most motivated reader of historical novels.