Andrew's Reviews > Ragtime

Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow
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's review
Sep 19, 2010

it was ok
Read in September, 2010

Bottom line up front: I didn’t like this book. I don’t think my feelings reached the “hate” level; the book simply didn’t evoke that much passion in me. I really wanted and was prepared to like this book. I read “World’s Fair” nearly 20 years ago and loved it. The difference may have been that “World’s Fair” was really a memoir. As a threshold issue, I have a bias against historical fiction. History written by academicians is difficult enough to get right, but in the hands of a novelist, I think it almost always comes out wrong—particularly when you are putting words in the mouths of historical characters like Evelyn Nesbit, Houdini, and Emma Goldman.

I’m always a little worried when reading historical fiction that I am going to get confused between fact and the novelist’s whimsy. In this “Ragtime,” I don’t think it’s going to be difficult—the plot and characters were so far removed from reality. I’ve always been a fan of this age of history—the scandalous Thaw trial and femme fatale, Nesbit, stand on their own as a great story—as does the life story of Houdini. Doctorow, for some reason, involves them in his ludicrous subplots, which are completely devoid of any ring of authenticity. I got the vague sense that Doctorow was only trying to advance his own 1970’s left of center worldview rather than say anything about the times or the people of the turn of century. I found that sort of hijacking of history to be mildly irritating.

But all that would tolerable—even fine, provided the writing was brilliant. It wasn’t. Far from brilliant, in fact. The book is full of trite unoriginal phrases like “costs a pretty penny,” “face grew red with shame,” and “touched a chord in his heart.” The omniscient POV was omniscient sometimes and sometimes was not, with no explanation of why or even who the narrator purported to be. Finally, the plot was just silly and contrived (though the Colehouse Walker plot was by far the most interesting). The end of the book was disjointed—some characters were simply forgotten. Others were resurrected and drawn back in unrealistically. Additionally, in every case where one word or phrase will do, Doctorow inevitably chooses five or six. It’s as if he has word choice issues, so he just gives the reader all the word he might of chose from. For example, “She was anxious, overwrought, aroused, unaccountably happy.” Some may call that poetic. I call it rot. One could write pages on why this critically acclaimed book is simply awful, but it’s not worth the effort.
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