My rating: 3 of 5 stars
“I’m gonna make a brand new start of it, New York, New York”, sang Frank Sinatra and Liza Minelli in what has become the city’s anthem. As he did for England, Ireland, and Russia, Edward Rutherfurd has undertaken to relate the history of New York City in novel form. My favorite of all his works is Sarum, told the story of the evolution of Salisbury Cathedral, though his other titles are also well worth reading. From Manhattan’s earliest years to the decade following 9/11, Rutherfurd traces the experiences of the fictional Master family as New York grows in size, prominence, and status. Along the way, he deftly weaves in the stories and contributions of slaves, Dutch and English settlers, Native Americans, and members of the various immigration groups, all of whom have played such important roles in the making of one of the world’s greatest cities.
If the novel conveys a theme, it would be that of the ongoing effort to build a socially just community. The first third of the book, covering the period from the settling of New Amsterdam to the War for Independence, is perhaps the most compelling section, and the most detailed. From then on, the author is forced by the vast scope of his topic to skipping entire decades and eras in order to focus on what he views as the city’s most formative events, including the draft riots during the Civil War, the prejudices and struggles affecting each immigrant group as they attempt to assimilate, the Great Depression, and second half of the 20th century. His characters are well drawn, though in my view, the later Master descendants lack the depth and vitality of the earliest ones. Particularly vivid are the portrayals of Quash, one of the family’s slaves, and his family. And Rutherfurd successfully depicts that vibrant ambience of this crowded and multicultural place, only fourteen miles long and two wide, and surrounded by water and smaller islands.
Read the book and you’ll “want to be a part of” New York too.