Goodreads helps you keep track of books you want to read.
Start by marking “The Waterworks” as Want to Read:
The Waterworks
Enlarge cover
Rate this book
Clear rating
Open Preview

The Waterworks

3.45  ·  Rating Details  ·  2,082 Ratings  ·  192 Reviews
“An elegant page-turner of nineteenth-century detective fiction.”
–The Washington Post Book World

One rainy morning in 1871 in lower Manhattan, Martin Pemberton a freelance writer, sees in a passing stagecoach several elderly men, one of whom he recognizes as his supposedly dead and buried father. While trying to unravel the mystery, Pemberton disappears, sending McIlvaine,
Paperback, 272 pages
Published May 8th 2007 by Random House Trade Paperbacks (first published 1994)
More Details... edit details

Friend Reviews

To see what your friends thought of this book, please sign up.

Reader Q&A

To ask other readers questions about The Waterworks, please sign up.

Be the first to ask a question about The Waterworks

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. SalingerThe Great Gatsby by F. Scott FitzgeraldA Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty  SmithBreakfast at Tiffany's by Truman CapoteExtremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer
Tales of New York City
135th out of 994 books — 919 voters
Ragtime by E.L. DoctorowWelcome to Hard Times by E.L. DoctorowBig as Life by E.L. DoctorowThe Book of Daniel by E.L. DoctorowLoon Lake by E.L. Doctorow
Best of E.L. Doctorow
9th out of 47 books — 1 voter

More lists with this book...

Community Reviews

(showing 1-30 of 3,000)
filter  |  sort: default (?)  |  Rating Details
Apr 16, 2014 William1 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: fiction, us, 20-ce, signed
A moody, elegant thriller, beautifully paced. A retired New York City newspaper editor writing after the turn of the century recounts the tale of what happened when his talented freelance writer, Martin Pemberton, went missing in the 1871. This was before the city had grown much above present-day 72nd Street. Martin believes, and others agree, that he may be losing his mind. He has twice recently seen his father, dead these last two years, being driven through town in a sepulchrally white omnibu ...more
May 26, 2008 Pat rated it liked it
This would've been a great novel... absorbing and thoughtful and a surprising sci-fi twist... if Doctorow had been able to control his use of ellipses (elippsises?). You couldn't read three sentences... without running into at least one triad of dots... and they were... thrown... in seemingly at... random. Not only that, but every character seemed... equally to be afflicted with ... ellipsosis. What seemed at first to be an... interesting and effective means of... emphasis... quickly became prof ...more
Richard Derus
Feb 19, 2013 Richard Derus rated it liked it
Book Circle Reads 21

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Book Description: “An elegant page-turner of nineteenth-century detective fiction.”
–The Washington Post Book World

One rainy morning in 1871 in lower Manhattan, Martin Pemberton, a freelance writer, sees in a passing stagecoach several elderly men, one of whom he recognizes as his supposedly dead and buried father. While trying to unravel the mystery, Pemberton disappears, sending McIlvaine, his employer, the editor of an evening paper, in pursuit of th
Nov 19, 2007 Kurt rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: meh, don't read it.
Once upon a time I thought Doctorow was a real contender, a heavyweight storyteller if not of canonical stature, then at least on par with other true professionals like Fowles or Dexter. Hell, I guess he is, actually, but it was Ragtime and Billy Bathgate that put that thought in mind, and Waterworks, while reinforcing the fact that Doctorow's a craftsman, does little to advance his reputation, in my opinion. It's a good, if dull, story and a nice little exercise in the ellipsis as pace-setter, ...more
Oct 06, 2009 Kevin rated it it was amazing
Underrated and under-read! By all means, listen to the (abridged, unfortunately) audiobook version by the great actor Sam Waterston. History, mystery, ethics, musings about eternity, the meaning of life, and New York trivia to boot. What more could you want?
Jan 05, 2013 Pamela rated it did not like it
Recommends it for: People who like to read crap
I managed to finish this ... book, but just ... barely. Will I read another by this author ... I don't think so. Did I enjoy this ... book? No ... I did not ... enjoy ... this book. Why?

The freaking ellipsis* (ellipses?)! The author's overuse of ... after ... after ... changed what could have been a fairly mediocre attempt at writing a 19th century mystery into something resembling sheer hell for this reader. These blasted dots made it impossible to tell (or care) if the character's voices were
Evocative post Civil War New York with lotsa juicy images is the setting for this slightly hallucinogenic tale of familial treachery and greed. The story is told by an aged journalist who is only peripherally related to the main characters. The hypocrisy of religion, the limited morality of “science”, and the constant reminder that everything has a price, especially in “The Ring’s” NYC.

Life under Boss Tweed; dramatic poverty and hoards of neglected children “street rats”, scurrying around the po
Nov 27, 2010 Sera rated it liked it
It is not a story of a lost writer, it is the story of a city. New York is actually the main character of the book. Doctorow depicts the city in a very elaborate and gloomy way and he takes us to a journey of New York in old times. We can breathe that air with the author's meticulous style. However, he doesn't capture the reader so easily. The mysterious story of the lost writer Martin Pemberton could have been told more thrillingly in my opinion but Pemberton doesn't give what we expect as read ...more
Jun 07, 2015 Chana rated it it was ok
Slow-moving and boring. It didn't quite fit the crime genre nor the mystery genre. It certainly was not a thriller. It was more of a philosophical meandering asking questions about the advance of medicine and science versus religion, the advance of the machine age versus the pastoral, the acceptance and resignation of age versus the fire and idealism of youth. It has a few bright moments as a story and I would hold hope for a some pages that the writer would continue to be bright and clear, but ...more
Jan 03, 2016 Jan rated it really liked it
A wonderful philosophical novel and detective story with a strong moral sense and a beautiful portrait of New York City in the Boss Tweed era. And God, the man can write!
Aug 26, 2015 Kate rated it it was amazing
On a cobbled street at the lower east tip of Manhattan is a gift shop filled with absurdly priced items -- $3,800 coffee tables. $400 earrings. $2,000 leather satchels. Hell! It's New York, so who am I to try to understand prices? But on the second floor of this gift shop is something I understand perfectly: books. This bookshop is devoted to the idea that celebrities are people too; this bookshop sells only the 10 favorite books of certain celebrities. I took a spin around the store reflecting ...more
Nathan Fehr
Jul 16, 2009 Nathan Fehr rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: rather-good
Book Report on
WATERWORKS by E.L. Doctorow

No. The narrator, McIlvane, is retelling the story years after it has occurred and makes many jumps forward and back as he goes along. It nicely reinforces the idea that he's been thinking a lot about the events of the novel himself, and that he's worked hard to understand things and put them in sequence when in some ways that isn't really possi
Linda Rowland
Sep 01, 2015 Linda Rowland rated it liked it
It was as though it was written during the actual time. Not sure if that is a good thing or a bad thing, but it made the reading less enjoyable for me. I found myself skimming when I should have been focusing on each word. Simply not the way I want to read, but I did find I wanted to know what was going on so I kept at it.
Feb 19, 2008 Beth rated it liked it
Recommends it for: Anyone
Although this was a pretty good book, it was probably my least favorite of all the EL Doctorow books which I have read. I can't go into much detail about the story without essentially giving away the whole book. This is because they kind of keep you in the dark about what is going on at the Waterworks until the last couple chapters. I am sure that at the time this book first came out it was a shocking concept, but there was a movie made a few years ago that must have either been based off of thi ...more
Nov 22, 2008 David rated it did not like it
This was handed to me by a neighbor so I thought, "what the heck, Doctorow is supposed to be a good author" and read the thing. When I mentioned this to my sister she said that Doctorow's books struck her pulp-fiction instead of literary which is what she expected given the author's reputation. I would have to say that this book is more like pulp-fiction that is trying to be literary - not the best of either world. I am sure not inclined to read any more of this author's works based on this "mys ...more
Oct 05, 2015 DGT rated it really liked it
"We practiced excess"

It is an assured novelist who can relegate plot and particularly a melodramatic plot, while developing both the character of the narrator and of the city that he observes so acutely. On the latter, it is the details that count: dead-man's curve; alienists; contemporary literary culture; the geography of the city, including its water conduits; Blackwell’s Island (now Roosevelt Island) in the Easter River); and the fires that, in the early 1870s, were daily and therefore norma
Jul 23, 2015 Ronald rated it liked it
A goodreads friend recenltly reviewed a novel by E.L. Doctorow, and that caused me to remember that I read another novel by E.L. Doctorow, _The Waterworks._

The novel was first published in 1994. I read it in the late 90s.

The novel falls in two genres I'm interested in: Gothic and SF horror. Specifically, the story takes place in New York in 1871. E.L. Doctorow is excellent at creating a picture of the time. The corrupt politics of Tammany Hall. Maimed veterans of the American Civil War out on th
Nov 04, 2014 Jane rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
The Waterworks is about the Boss Tweed Tammany Hall era of New York City, and to hype the message that corruption is bad (or is just a facet of Darwinism in the eyes of some), the plot focuses on the consequences of the work of a medical doctor who is just too darn good for the era. In other words, what would happen if graft, bribery, and corruption were applied to the medical field as well as to everything else in post-Civil War NYC?

It is a pity that Doctorow's execution of such a cool theme wa
Kris Munson
Nov 16, 2015 Kris Munson rated it really liked it
I started reading "The Waterworks" after reading multiple books that weren't that good. As I began to read this book, I was really impressed and exuberant about the possibilities that I had finally hit a good book that had been sitting in my personal library for eons.

The beginning of The Waterworks is built on an honestly good premice. What happens when a member of rich New York Society, in the years just after the civil war, goes missing? He has a wife, and a young son, who are now suddenly pe
Oct 24, 2015 Ernie rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This master story-teller sets his tale in New York city 1869-71 so I'm seeing comparisons with Edith Wharton and Henry James, especially in those mansions going up in the paddocks at the north end of Park Avenue and the digging going on to begin Central Park. However, Doctorow puts his focus on the street life where “the urchins - or street rats as we called them – were as common and unremarkable as paving stones” so Dickens and London also comes to mind. The narrator is McIlvraine, a newspaper ...more
Una mañana lluviosa de 1871, cuando Martin Pemberton baja por Broadway rumbo a la redacción de su periódico, ve un ómnibus blanco tirado por caballos en el que viajan unos ancianos de negro riguroso. Cree reconocer entre ellos a su padre, muerto y sepultado dos años atrás.
Trastornado por la visión y para convencerse de que no ha sido ni una alucinación ni un cuento de fantasmas, Martin parte en busca del elusivo coche municipal y sus fúnebres pasajeros. McIlvaine, el zumbón editor del Telegram y
Jun 24, 2013 Lara rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
very grim, but insightful, even profound. I loved the narrator with his masterfully rendered voice of a 19th-century new yorker and his whole persona evolving around this seemingly disembodied voice. and of course New York itself - beautiful and nuanced stylisation into which history weavened not as facts or numbers but as living pulse of the city life, so that one can feel its beat even today.
Aug 03, 2009 Akiva rated it liked it
Definitely one of Doctorow's lesser efforts. There are bits of good writing and the mystery kept me going, but the book definitely fell flat. Another book where the narrator is largely a nonentity as interesting things happen around him. I kind of feel like the entire book was an extended exercise in foreshadowing and that most of it was just an extended metaphor about stasis and change.
Mar 30, 2015 Teresa rated it really liked it
It felt like a slow book at first, but I soon found myself turning pages quickly to discover the solution to the mystery. With a backdrop of 1840s New York, as only Doctorow can do backdrops, even a lame story would read-well. But this was no lame story. Yes, it's been done before - and done much better since (by Ishiguro) - but I liked it for what it was. A darn good read.
Aug 14, 2014 Bogdan rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: new-world
This is an interesting novel, a kind of tribute to 19th century romantic novels, set in the New York of that time. With a noir/gothic background and one of the central characters being a socially not adapted genial doctor. But despite using the themes of romantic novel, it ended up in a nice reading not a relic from another era. I guess the language and the first person narrator are the key to this achievement.

It took me some time to understand the premise. The conflict that triggers the story i
Jee Koh
Sep 03, 2013 Jee Koh rated it it was ok
The Waterworks, my second Doctorow, has a rather predictable plot and characters that seem more symbol than flesh-and-blood. It tries too hard to rise above its genre, that of detective fiction. It is a pleasant enough way, however, to learn more about New York City in 1871. For instance, where the New York Library now stands, there used to be a reservoir.
Nov 24, 2015 Karen rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Excellent! Doctorow has become one of my favorite authors.
Jun 30, 2011 Joel rated it did not like it
This was an extremely dull book. If you want to get into Doctorow, I'd suggest starting with Sweet Land Stories, which was great, or Ragtime (haven't read it but I know it's his most famous). Skip this. He uses ellipses between almost every sentence. It gets aggravating very quickly. The whole book was bland.
Jerry Delaney
Sep 05, 2011 Jerry Delaney rated it it was ok
I seem to be all over the place with Doctorow. Some of his books I have loved while others - like this one - I really regret picking up. It read to me like a pastiche of popular (not literary) novels of the time in which it was set. Well done as an exercise for the writer but not enjoyable for the reader.
May 22, 2013 Asta rated it liked it
As a longtime ellipsis overuser, the punctuation of this novel didn't bother me and I was able to easily travel the streets of Boss Tweed's New York.
It's not as strong as Ragtime or Billy Bathgate in terms of plot or character development, but it was entertaining.
« previous 1 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 99 100 next »
There are no discussion topics on this book yet. Be the first to start one »
  • The Battle for Gotham: New York in the Shadow of Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs
  • American Passage: The History of Ellis Island
  • Hades
  • Hunter's Moon
  • The White Rose Murders (Sir Roger Shallot, #1)
  • The World in a City: Traveling the Globe Through the Neighborhoods of the New New York
  • Noir
  • Ravish: The Awakening of Sleeping Beauty
  • Northfield
  • Invisible Boy (Madeline Dare, #3)
  • The Last Illusion (Molly Murphy Mysteries, #9)
  • The Sonderberg Case
  • The Night Inspector
  • Into the Wildewood (Faire Folk Trilogy #2)
  • 97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement
  • Blind Man's Alley
  • Spitting Off Tall Buildings
  • All The Pretty Dead Girls
E. L. DOCTOROW’S works of fiction include Homer & Langley,The March, Billy Bathgate, Ragtime, the Book of Daniel, City of God, Welcome to Hard Times, Loon Lake, World’s Fair, The Waterworks, and All the Time in the World. Among his honors are the National Book Award, three National Book Critics Circle Awards, two PEN Faulkner Awards, The Edith Wharton Citation for Fiction, and the presidential ...more
More about E.L. Doctorow...

Share This Book

“Ever since this day I have dreamt sometimes... I, a street rat in my soul, dream even now... that if it were possible to life this littered, paved Manhattan from the earth... and all its torn and dripping pipes and conduits and tunnels and tracks and cables--all of it, like a scab from new skin underneath--how seedlings would sprout and freshets bubble up, and brush and grasses would grow over the rolling hills...” 1 likes
“He was a moody, distracted young fellow, and it was clear his own mind was more company to him than people were.” 0 likes
More quotes…