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The Waterworks

3.44  ·  Rating details ·  2,860 ratings  ·  288 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)
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Average rating 3.44  · 
Rating details
 ·  2,860 ratings  ·  288 reviews

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Apr 05, 2011 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: fiction, 20-ce, signed, us
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 18, 2008 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 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
Jan 05, 2013 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
dianneOnRBG RIPmalaiseBreak
Aug 03, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nyc
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 19, 2007 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
Jun 02, 2015 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
Oct 06, 2009 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?
Jun 25, 2018 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: ficciones, bagatelle
An attempted thriller, an unchallenging genre exercise somewhat distinguished by above-average prose and elegant historical atmospherics. Perfect material for a mid-budget single season Netflix costumer.
Andy Weston
Jun 23, 2019 rated it really liked it
New York in 1872 has grown to a population of almost a million. A freelance journalist goes missing after telling his editor that he just seen his own father, who died the year before, though he had no sort of relationship with him, a man who had earned his fortune running slave boats along the Atlantic Coast.
Always there is the spectre of corruption, of bribery and extortion headed by the gangster Boss Tweed. As gripping as the plot is, NY itself is very much the star of the show, a place impr
Benjamin baschinsky
Jul 02, 2020 rated it it was ok
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Dec 27, 2015 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!
Oct 08, 2010 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
Jerry Delaney
Sep 05, 2011 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.
Notcathy J
Jun 16, 2007 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
"Someone should tell him that ellipses do not replace dashes, commas or semicolons, even if you are one of America's preeminent men of letters."
Jeremy Hornik
Jun 28, 2019 rated it really liked it
A lush, grim novel, generous with language and the detail with which the characters are drawn, but dark, dark about the power and emptiness of money. The narrator is a newspaperman who has been driven to inarticulacy by the horrors he had discovered. The use of ellipses... is... telling. This is in large part a horror novel, with the mad Doctor Sartorius and his amoral pursuit of knowledge being the perfect match to the amoral capitalists and their pursuit of wealth holding sway over the sway ov ...more
Jess M
Feb 25, 2018 rated it liked it
A good book but I found it difficult to get in to. It was a hard slog through the first 100 pages. The incessant and unnecessary use of ellipses was pretty annoying, and after a while, I was able to ignore them enough to keep going. The story, however, was compelling and I enjoyed the twists and turns of the mystery and the various characters who played a role in unraveling it. Overall, an enjoyable read, but certainly not a must-read.
Pedro L. Fragoso
May 02, 2016 rated it it was amazing
I bought, and still have, the original hardcover edition, from 1994, when Simon Schama classified it in the review in the New York Times as a "startling and spellbinding new novel". There was another review in the Times that year mentioning a "haunting new novel" and later, on the author's death, a consideration of "a dark mystery set in Manhattan in the 1870s, involving a journalist who vanishes and an evil scientist."

Now that I finally got around to actually reading it, I can confirm it all. T
Simon Mcleish
Oct 27, 2012 rated it really liked it
Originally published on my blog here in February 2001.

The industrialisation of the northeastern United States is one of the most important processes in the development of the modern country, but lacking the romance of the Wild West and the South it is not so frequently a subject for fiction. Doctorow's novel, which is set in New York in the early 1870s, is an exception, and it is a gothic tale strongly influenced by writers of the period.

The narrator is a newspaper editor, who is in a good posit
Nathan Fehr
Jun 01, 2009 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Jul 23, 2015 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
Aug 02, 2015 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
Feb 19, 2008 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 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
Aug 03, 2009 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.
Jun 30, 2011 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.
Jun 24, 2013 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.
Mar 27, 2015 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.
Linda Rowland
Aug 22, 2015 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.
Seth Mann
Nov 11, 2012 rated it it was ok
Provides a lens to NYC during the Tweed era - most interesting for me were the descriptions of the changing landscape of the island from pastoral to city. however, story seemed flat, contrived and a bit over-the-top for my liking.
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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 presidentially ...more

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