Sunday, February 21st, 2010
The Short Take:
This engaging novel traces the history of New York from its early Dutch settlers to the 21st century. In the style of the late James Michener, it follows several families through the years. But what really made it interesting to me is the different perspective you get on American history from a English writer.
Even though this tome weighs in at a hefty 860 pages, I wanted it to be even longer. Honest. I wanted more of the fascinating glimpses into the arguments for and against the break with England, for and against the Civil War, for and against so many historic issues. I also learned quite a bit about our past that had exceptional relevance to this day — including the only explanation I have ever seen about “selling short” that made a lick of sense to me.
My biggest complaint was that there were so many things I wanted to read more about: the very first Dutch settlers of new Amsterdam (this book picks them up comfortably established), The Harlem Renaissance, Broadway, and so on. But I guess a novelist has to stop somewhere or his book becomes an encyclopedia.
In the past, Rutherfurd’s writing has mainly focused on Ireland and England. In this first venture across the Atlantic he has created a rich and rewarding read that entertains as much as it educates. While there’s no doubt it is a work of historical fiction, I found it to be a real page turner as well.
A Little Plot:
Even if you just barely remember your high school history, you should still have a general idea of what happened in present day New York between 1664 and the present, so there’s no need to go into that here. Rutherfurd invents one family to carry the story from start to finish — the prosperous Master clan. Multiple generations of other families come and go with the tides of history. It’s a tribute to Rutherfurd’s storytelling that you care just as much about the anguish and triumph of his own creations as you do about the unfolding story of one of the world’s greatest cities.
I have read almost all of Rutherfurd’s books and I would definitely put this one in his top three. I just wish it was longer.
For more about Rutherfurd, New York, and his other words, click here.