Well this is indeed an epic masterpiece as denoted on the jacket cover.
My thirst for knowledge on the history of New York, as well as America is well and truly quenched. For now.
An ingenious idea to begin with, a novel that tells the 400 year history of New York by using several fictional families interspersed with significant real life characters resulting in some uncanny entwining stories. I like the recalling of familiar surnames used to name the streets as they get built; Reade, Duane, Washington and Hudson.
The story begins with the Dutch settlers as the Native Americans have already been pushed out of lower Manhattan. The early chapters talk about the numerous attempts of the English to own New York and the battles duly fought. The English influence is much more evident to me now knowing places like Trinity Church were built thanks to the early wealthy merchants but others soon followed them into America; Germans, Jewish, Irish and the Italians at the close of the 19th century.
The story begins with the words of a well treated slave of a wealthy Dutch family before moving onto the narrative of his kindly master. These two family’s stories are told over several generations and it’s warming to see their names return over again, even when the author skips a couple of generations.
One of the surprise elements is how common travel was from England to New York, even if it took weeks by ship, the wealthy, diplomats and politicians afforded the luxury. I imagine the army didn’t travel in such style but of course they recruited soldiers from within America itself.
I loose count after six generations but even when America became independent and civilised, I am still enthralled with the ever tangled stories. It’s remarkable to read about old money and new money which describes lives before and after Wall Street bankers become the financial dictators of the world.
It’s fantastic to witness Central Park forming and later becoming home to the many who lost everything in the crash of 1929 and the opening of the marvel that is Brooklyn Bridge as well as the grid of streets rising up from the tip of Manhattan as America forged ahead as the dominant force it has now become. Then onto the famous Flat Iron building and especially the completion of Chrysler and Empire State Buildings. The Chrysler was completed on the very day of the Wall Street crash and the Empire was then, as in more recent times, known as Empty State Building, both having been built just in time for the Depression.
At the same time, the world’s richest family are building the wonderful Rockefeller centre, giving much needed to work to the hundreds unemployed. An eyesore opposite St Patrick’s cathedral, even when workers decide to put up the now world famous Christmas tree.
Thankfully the author does not dwell on the negatives. Instead the term, ‘New Yorkers don’t take no for an answer’ is repeated as necessary. Not in the Depression, not when Britain invade and not on September 11th.
Even the inevitable deaths of each generation are quickly glossed over moving on to more positive new stories.
Every new wave of immigrants faces the same racism that is in some smaller way, is still evident in America today but that doesn’t stop them coming to build a better life from wherever they came and from whatever war they are escaping from. The book states that the reason there are so many Irish and Italians in the Police and Fire departments is to quench their longing to belong and be respected. And to find their way out of poverty and into the establishment. Some things don’t change.
Each riveting introduction of new generation is eventually entwined with one of the families the reader is familiar with already and so the story starts again.
As old money started going up town on the East Side courtesy of Fifth Avenue, across the park, the West side didn’t have it’s first grand house until the early 1900’s. It didn’t take me quite as long to go from East to West but it was a good 15 years of visiting NYC before I ventured to the other side of the park. Now of course, it’s unlikely I will ever go back East.
Interestingly, after the Wall Street crash, our most familiar family, the Masters, had to downgrade from their mid town Fifth Avenue house to an apartment on Park Avenue, now worth several million no doubt. Park was just plain old Fourth then and not as glamorous as it has become.
Other families disappear into the ever growing streets of Manhattan. The arrival of the Hispanic community in the 1970’s is unfortunately not as detailed as previous immigrants but they gave new life to the book I have a much better understanding of the geography of their community above 96th Street. This explains why the block on 93rd Street where I lived is completely Spanish speaking and wonderfully vibrant.
A truly majestic story superbly telling the history of New York.
I am completely in love with this book, as I have been in love with this great city for all my adulthood.
I look forward to the BBC drama/Spielberg trilogy/HBO series – whichever wakes up to the opportunity.
9/10 Inspiration factor 9/10