Thursday, April 21, 2011

The history of a city in 880 pages

It only sat on my shelf for about two years, but I FINALLY FINISHED IT, GUYS. I finally read Edward Rutherfurd's 880 page epic, New York: The Novel.

It starts in 1664 with a Dutch merchant named Dirk van Dyck who has settled in New Amsterdam with his family. He meets an Englishman from Boston named Tom Merchant, and the two join forces to create a shipping company that brings power and wealth to these two men in the expanding New World. The next 350 years of history involve the interwoven stories of these two families, as New Amsterdam transforms into the modern, powerful city it is today: New York City.

A chunkster can be so satisfying because you can get completely sucked in to the characters, which is particularly easy when you know you're going to follow these people and their lives and their families for decades and centuries to come. New York put the characters we've followed, the ones we now know, into historical settings we also know, which had the affect of putting us, the reader, the middle of it all...and viewing history from a first-hand perspective. In this regard, New York was a five-star novel, but that doesn't mean it is without its faults.

The story opens with the van Dycks, the Masters, and their slaves, and we follow their lives and families from the mid-17th century through the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, and then...for some lineages, it just stops. The novel becomes the story of the WASPy Master family. And for the next 200 years, we follow the Masters through the Gilded Age, the Depression, the Wall Street boom...and all we read about is MONEY. While Rutherfurd took care to color every time period with relevant characters (like German and Irish immigrants in the 1800s, Italian immigrants at the turn of the century, 20th-century Jewish communities in Brooklyn) none of these other characters ever felt as fully integrated into the story. Yes, they played a role, and their descendants sometimes did as well, but Rutherfurd just kept the novel so incredibly focused on the upper-class Masters, that I was left wondering what happened to the slaves and the natives, and what these immigrants really went through, because I didn't get their full history.

What I'm trying to say in all of that is...I don't want to hear obnoxious rich people whining about not being rich enough, so by the end, I didn't care a flip about the Masters.

All of this aside, I thought it was a fabulous novel that inevitably made me want to hear more on all these people I met throughout its 880 pages. My favorite part was actually the beginning, when Manhattan was forests and farmland because this is just such a foreign concept to me, currently living in the concrete jungle day in and day out. I love when Rutherfurd intertwined historical figures and events with his fictional characters, because I can read about Lincoln's pre-Presidency speech at Cooper Union in 1860 and say, "I KNOW WHERE THAT IS."

I think Rutherfurd's point to this novel is that this city is fluid, ever shifting and ever changing, but with an energy that fuels its people and makes things happen and defines its very existence. New Yorkers have New York in their blood, and just as the people define their city, a city defines its people as well. Call it an ego or call it pride, but I guarantee there is no place that sentiment is felt stronger than in New York.

For those of you interested in New York City history, browse the Welikia Project to uncover the city's original ecology.


Jenny said...

I've heard that same complaint with this book about the lineages just stopping and there's really no follow up with some families. When I WAS reading this book (LOL) I thought the beginning family was my favorite too which is ironic because I usually have trouble relating to things so out of my awareness (which life in the 1700's definitely is haha). Hopefully I'll get back to this one day!

softdrink said...

This is one of the better chunksters I've read. I especially liked how you got a sense of the neighborhoods, and where some of the place names came from. I'm a dork like that.

Kari said...

Oh man, I loved that too! Especially the Governor's Island example!

Greg Z. said...

I really enjoyed this book too. And I couldn't agree more with your assessment that some of the characters felt more like props for the historical events than actual living people. I loved the detail about how Teddy Roosevelt handed JP Morgan $25 million and basically said "save us."

Here's my review from last summer, if you're interested:

I enjoyed your take on this!

Kari said...

Thanks for posting the link to your review, Greg! As I was reading, I made my own family tree with all the characters. When I finished the book, I wanted to be able to easily figure out exactly how those characters were related to the very beginning. It definitely helped!

As I got along in the Maggie/Gorham Master story, I am sad to say I completely forgot she was a descendant of the Irish O'Donnells. I caught the family line when they first introduced her, but then she became so tied up with the Masters' way of life that her heritage was ignored. Which obviously made me forget where she came from.

Meghan said...

Rutherford is so very good at evoking that sense of place! I've read a few of his books and really want to read this one - the history of NYC is something that is so fascinating to me but is also an area I know very little about. I love to start with fiction so I'll definitely be looking for this!

Kenzie Anne B said...

Good review. I was not overly impressed with Rutherford's writing style, but I loved how he worked historical events in fairly favorite part, however, was how Mrs. Master was secretly putting away the money before the crash. I wish it were a true story.