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23 February 2010

Of the City over Time

One of my Christmas presents was Edward Rutherfurd's new book, New York, a 1,000-page, hardback tome that follows the fortunes of one New York family and the other families, from a range of provenances, with whom they come into contact over about 350 years. My parents thoughtfully gave me the book before we went to France, so I wouldn't have to lug it back home but although it sounded interesting--very much like my kind of book--I only started reading it a couple of weeks ago as it is so heavy and bulky. As predicted, my reading time has declined greatly since my commute was reduced to about 40 minutes per day, round-trip, and I only read about 50 pages per day on the Tube and buses and it feels terribly inefficient to bring a 1,000 page book with me if I'm only going to get through 50 pages.

The book opens in 1664 when New York is merely a little fishing village called New Amsterdam. The first protagonist is a wealthy Dutchman named Dick van Dyck who has sneaked away from his wife in order to meet up with his illegitimate half-Indian daughter, Pale Feather. She has made him an intricately designed wampum belt as a symbol of her love; all he has to give her is a shiny, silver dollar coin. These two objects recur periodically throughout the tale.

We are then introduced to the Master family, who arrive in New York from England and over time become wealthy merchants and, later, bankers. The Masters, named, according to the author in the preface, for the Masters of the Universe of Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities, are the central family in the novel and although sometimes one or two generations are skipped over between chapters, we follow them all the way to Manhattan in the 21st century. The book deals mainly with New York's cosmopolitan nature and as well as the van Dycks' and the Masters' slaves and servants, other major characters include the Irish O'Donnells and the German Kellers inhabiting the Lower East Side in the 19th century, the Italian Carusos at the beginning of the 20th century, and the Jewish Adlers living in 1950s Brooklyn.

The stories of the individual families, other than the Masters, were sometimes unsatisfying and concluded rather too hastily for my liking. I wanted to know what happened, for example, to Kate, the clever cousin of one of the key Masters whom she humiliates with her culture and her knowledge in the mid-18th century. We find out later that she did well for herself but this is really just an aside. At least in the story of the Master family, there is more consistency and because some of the Masters appear in two chapters (one as a central character when they are young and one as a more minor character when they have stood aside to let the younger generation take over).

Of course, to say that some of the stories of the people depicted in New York is missing the point because it really is the story of the city, even more so than Bonfire of the Vanities and even more than The Emperor's Children. In those two books, the characters are really the most important feature but in New York, they are just the road the author uses to drive from 17th century New Amsterdam to modern-day Manhattan. This isn't necessarily a bad thing: I learned a lot about the history of the city and its role in the American Revolution and the American Civil War. I learned about the dangers of being downtown in the 19th century, especially around Five Points (although Martin Scorsese already taught me a lot) and the poor conditions of the Lower East Side (although the excellent Tenement Museum in New York taught me a lot more) and, of course, the the stock market crashes of 1929 and 1987 come up too (and yes, the links with Bonfire do continue to resonate).

The event that annoyed me most was the telling of the events of September 11. It was inevitable that this day would take place at the climax of the novel (after all, there have not, since then, been any other events in New York that would make it into a "all-time greatest hits of New York history" like Rutherfurd's book) and of course, it had to be covered but it just felt a little too rushed for my taste. The Emperor's Children also revisits September 11 but again, because the latter is really about the characters (three friends), the depiction of the day feels less contrived--the focus is more on the personal level rather than the general.

Edward Rutherfurd's book is an ambitious and impressive undertaking. Even with 1,000 pages, the attention-seeking New York soon sucks up space and it is to the author's credit that he was able to pack so much history into the book. The idea of the story of a city being told by watching the different groups of immigrants who move there is interesting and uniquely suited to New York. The same concept wouldn't work for London, for example. If I found some of the families' stories uninteresting, it was, in most cases, because they had not been allocated enough pages to make me care about them. On the other hand, my favourite pairing was wannabe-boho Charlie Master and young, Jewish gallery assistant, Sarah Adler; unfortunately, just as I started to care about what happened to them, we skipped forward to the next generation (although it doesn't quite end there) and I had to try to be interested in Charlie's son Gorham and his romantic interest too...

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