Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Book Review: New York, by Edward Rutherfurd

A big, juicy historical novel about the Big Apple, from Dutch fur traders in New Amsterdam to 9/11.

New York

Ballantine Books, 2009, 862 pages

The best-selling master of historical fiction weaves a grand, sweeping drama of New York from the city's founding to the present day.

Rutherfurd celebrates America's greatest city in a rich, engrossing saga that showcases his extraordinary ability to combine impeccable historical research and storytelling flair. As in his earlier, best-selling novels, he illuminates cultural, social, and political upheavals through the lives of a remarkably diverse set of families.

As he recounts the intertwining fates of characters rich and poor, black and white, native born and immigrant, Rutherfurd brings to life the momentous events that shaped New York and America: the Revolutionary War, the emergence of the city as a great trading and financial center, the excesses of the Gilded Age, the explosion of immigration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the trials of World War II, the near-demise of New York in the 1970s and its roaring rebirth in the '90s, and the attacks on the World Trade Center. Sprinkled throughout are captivating cameo appearances by historical figures ranging from George Washington to Abraham Lincoln to Babe Ruth.

New York is the book that millions of Rutherfurd's American fans have been waiting for. A brilliant mix of romance, war, family drama, and personal triumphs, it gloriously captures the search for freedom and prosperity at the heart of our nation's history.

Early New York

I don't know how Edward Rutherfurd does the research to write these immense historical novels about different times and places. My first Rutherfurd novel was Sarum, which covered the entire history of England from the earliest Celts to the modern day. New York doesn't go back quite so far — only to the 1600s, and the beginnings of New York, but as with Sarum, it spans centuries of history by following the ups and downs of several families, who grow up in and with the city, sometimes leave and return, sometimes are very much aware of their ancient lineage and sometimes have no idea when they are speaking to someone whose ancestors did business with their ancestors right in this same city. You, the reader, become attached to the Van Dycks, the Masters, the Kellers and the O'Donnells, all weaving their way through history and being joined by newer families along the way. All of the "main characters" in the book are fictional, but they meet with real historical figures, and experience historical events.

It's a grand, sweeping epic, driven by the melodramas of individual characters. We know that the Revolutionary War is coming, and how it will end, just as we know about the Civil War, and World Wars I and II, and in the final chapters of the novel, 9/11. But our fictional families go through it all as it happens.

The central figures in New York, the ones who are present through every generation, are the Van Dycks and the Masters. Originally Dutch and Puritan arrivals in New York, respectively, they intermarry and become one of the wealthy "old money" families of the city. At one point they reckon themselves at the top of the social order, but as the 19th century ends, even though they are still wealthy, they are being eclipsed by the Morgans, the Duponts, the Rockefellers, and in the early 20th century, wars and depressions reduce them to "genteel" circumstances. Still rich (as another character puts it, "What a strange world in which becoming poor meant moving to an apartment on Park Avenue!"), but now just rich compared to the average New Yorker. As the family's fortunes continue to wax and wane, they continue to be affluent, but still looking up at the titanic fortunes of investment bankers and billionaires.

There are also Irish and Jewish and Italian immigrant families who join the story. And here and there reappears the descendant of an Indian mistress who began the novel. Perhaps most tragic is the story of the descendants of Quash, the African slave, whose line also persists down through many generations until it is tragically cut short. Some families make it to the 21st century, some don't...

There were no uninteresting chapters. Whether it was the Dutch/English rivalries in early Manhattan, the conflict between Patriots and Loyalists as New York weathers the American Revolution, the draft riots of the Civil War, the Flapper and Speakeasy era, the collapse of the economy in the Great Depression, the changing times of the 50s and 60s, or the turn of the 21st century, every era of history was illustrated not by an infodump about the historical events, but by returning to our friends the Masters, the Adlers, the Kellers, the Carusos, and seeing how they are faring.

I really love these books, and intend to eventually read all of Rutherfurd's novels. He's written several about England and Ireland, one about Russia, another about Paris. This is his style, to create relatable characters and then write them and their generations of descendants into a dramatic history that will probably dump a few things you didn't actually know on you along the way. Highly recommended for any fans of historical dramas.

Also by Edward Rutherfurd: My review of Sarum: The Novel of England.

My complete list of book reviews.
Tags: books, edward rutherfurd, history, reviews

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