New York

Published: 2010
Author: Edward Rutherfurd


A sweeping epic which doesn’t do justice to the diversity of New York

This year I promised myself that I was going to read more books. I set myself the target of seventy-five books. Having read sixty-one last year this wasn’t too onerous a target and until the end of February I was roughly on target. Then I started New York by Edward Rutherfurd and my schedule has been thrown right out of the window. I should have known that a hefty book of 1017 pages would take a while to read but as soon as I spotted this on a bookshop shelf I knew that I had to get it, no matter how long it took me to read.

Edward Rutherfurd specialises in epic histories which use the experiences of a group of families to cover centuries of an area’s life. I particularly enjoyed London and expected New York to offer the same scope and excitement as Rutherfurd’’s previous novels, and it did (mostly).

The book begins in 1664 with the arrival of Dutch and English families and the expulsion of Native Americans and ends in the present day with the shadow of the 9/11 attacks still present in the lives of the residents of the city. Unlike other Rutherfurd novels which tend to have a number of intertwining family stories, New York focuses on one family – the Masters – from their early days as Dutch merchants to their position as one of the city’s “blue blood” social leaders.

The story encompasses much of the great events in American history including Independence, the Civil War, the Wall Street Crash and Depression of 1929 and of course the attack on the Twin Towers on 11 September 2001. Seen through the experiences of the Masters family the book nicely captures most of the city’s history and explains everything on a human level rather than being a stuffy historical tome.

The big question is whether New York matches the mastery of Rutherfurd’s earlier works? The answer is partially yes but disappointingly also a partial no. The focus being on one family led to events feeling shoehorned into the story because they had to be covered in a history of the city rather than because they fit the narrative of the Masters family. Other characters and families were introduced as plot devices and dropped again as soon as they had fulfilled their purpose.

The racial element of the story made me feel a bit uncomfortable. A Native American girl appears and disappears within a couple of pages, a black family appears for a couple of generations to illustrate the horrors of slavery and racism, then an Italian immigrant family, then a Jewish family. Different ethnicities appear then disappear as soon as their contrived interaction with the Masters was over. At one pointed it seemed that non WASP characters were included just so that a member of the family could die in a nasty way. For such a vibrant and ethnically diverse city to be represented in such a tokenistic way was annoying.

The first half of the book was slow and took me a couple of weeks to plough my way through, but it picked up when the city became more recognisable as the New York that we all know from movies and TV shows. Rutherfurd has clearly researched this carefully and exhaustively and has created an impressive piece of fiction. I just wish it had been engaging enough for me to spend less than three and a half weeks reading it.

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