Washington, D.C., might be America’s political capital, and L.A. is the modern source of a lot of our shared cultural experiences, but to examine the true heart and soul of the United States, one has to look to its largest city. Edward Rutherfurd provides an opportunity to do just that with his aptly, if slightly uncreatively, titled novel, New York.
Toward the end of the novel, Rutherfurd mentions James Michener a couple of times in passing, most likely for the time-sensitive cultural clue. It’s also, however, an amazingly appropriate choice for Rutherfurd to make. This book is a sprawling, grand examination of a city through time since its creation by the Dutch in the seventeenth century, following in the same vein as Michener’s work, mixing the fictional and nonfictional together in a closely-researched and very accurate novel.
This is, unfortunately, one of the aspects of the book that made it a bit of a chore to read. Rutherfurd has a wealth of engaging stories in the Master family, the one clan we get to follow from the beginning of New York until the present day. Even most of the side stories are interesting. There’s simply too much. While the plots are good and the characters are, for the most part, believable, there’s a lot to keep track of and, quite frankly, the story seems to stall in certain time periods. Most of the Revolutionary period, as well as the time around the Civil War, comes to a standstill.
A reason things tend to go slowly is the painstaking way the city’s history is presented. It often feels like the actual story grinds to a halt so Rutherfurd can provide the reader with a history lesson. A little bit of this is good. A lot of this makes the story feel as if it’s there merely to teach us what we should have learned in high school history class, which gets old fast. I found it difficult to get through at times because I felt it was a slog to get to the story through the education attempt.
On the plus side, I really liked following the one family and seeing its fate (and the fates of those surrounding them) unfold. It’s an excellent device for mirroring and exploring how historical events affect both individuals and following generations. I was sorry to see that we lost families along the way; I would have liked to been able to see an African-American storyline throughout the entire book, for example.
I feel that Rutherfurd was extremely honest about what people’s reactions to their current events and situations. Most Northerners were, for the most part, complicit about slavery, and he gives us a full view of people passively and indirectly earning money off the forced labor of African slaves. We see many in the Master family show their greed, their vanity, their generosity, their idealism, and their malaise in incredibly accurate prose. Rutherfurd has an amazing understanding of people’s inner motivations, and I enjoyed being able to see inside so many interesting minds to explore their thoughts.
Overall, New York is a series of wonderful stories strung together by exposition that can drag. If you don’t know the history of New York, or American history, the background is probably helpful. For those of us who have a grasp on what this country — and what its landmark city — has been through, a lot of the book can be jettisoned.