Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Edward Rutherfurd has made a successful career out of writing lengthy, multigenerational saga in which the venue is as much a character as the people who populate his works. Beginning with Sarum in 1987, Rutherfurd has explored Russian history, London, Ireland, and the New Forest. He has now turned his attention to New York, tracing its relatively short history from 1664, nearly forty years after its founding, until 2001, when it experienced one of the seminal events of its modern history.
Beginning with the family of Dirk van Dyck, Rutherfurd builds his cast of characters much more slowly than in most of his books. After a period of three hundred years, he is still focused on the descendents of van Dyck and Tom Master, who van Dyck met on a trading expedition, as well as the Hudsons, who were one-time slaves of the Masters. Just as New York's population exploded between the Civil War and the turn of the century, most of Rutherfurd's immigrant families don't enter the picture until the Civil War and the years following it. While in past books, personalities tended to remain within a family generation after generation, in New York, the characters' personalities are less dependant on their families, perhaps in keeping with the idea that New York and the New World offered individuals a chance to break from their past.
The growth of New York as a city moves a little faster than Rutherfurd's addition of characters. The small village surrounding the fort in the days of Peter Stuyvesant really begins to see growth after the British take over. As the Masters family establishes itself, the city slowly spreads northwards from the southern tip of Manhattan island, eventually subsuming the Bouweries, or farms, established by the early Dutch settlers, as well as the other villages and Indian settlements. By the time of the Civil War, the city has begun to take on the crowded feeling and bustle which is so often associated with New York, even as natural areas still exist, Manhattan not yet being converted to the concrete jungle broken up only by the massive Central Park, itself begun only a few years before the Civil War.
As New York grows, so, too, does Rutherfurd's story spread. Initially focusing on Manhattan, eventually the other borroughs are brought into the narrative, just as the five borroughs were combined in 1898. Although Rutherfurd was willing to look further afield than Manhattan throughout, setting scenes in Niagara and London, the accession of the five borroughs opened Rutherfurd's story further, although the main story continued to play out on the island of Manhattan.
Rutherfurd's style is quite transparent, painting quick, but detailed, pictures of the city, spending more time and delineating its inhabitants and their stories. At times, his exposition stands out, but generally, he manages to merge story and background well, often giving hints about historical figures and events without providing their entire story, for instance the story of Madame Restell, which is only hinted at during the chapter on the Draft Riots of 1863. These details, however, are all tied in to the story and interact with Rutherfurd's characters in a manner that makes their stories germane.
Of minor note is that while Rutherfurd's previous novels have all contained family trees to help the reader track the introduction of new characters and the relationships between families, this feature is missing from New York. Similarly, while the book does include maps of New York and its environs, there are times that more details would be helpful.
New York is a satisfying addition to Rutherfurd's stories. His characters are interesting without overshadowing the primary character of the city. As the city expands and gains in diversity, his characters allow Rutherfurd to look at those parts of the city. While New York may be one of the most described cities in literature, Rutherfurd is able to bring a feel for the city, constantly steeped in history, to show the reader how New York of the 1900s, 1953s, and 1970s got that way, showing that the "city that never sleeps" is also a city constantly undergoing evolution.
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