Mel's Reviews > New York

New York by Edward Rutherfurd
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's review
Jun 18, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: history-and-historical-fiction
Recommended for: anyone who enjoys history

This is my first read of anything by Edward Rutherfurd, and I enjoyed it a good deal. A little exposition-heavy, but it's woven in with just enough skill to avoid being clunky. It's easy to spot the formula at work, but I picked it up as an entertaining way to brush up on American history, and it does a good job of bringing the past alive.

I would caution one thing: a lot of summaries make this sound like a ensemble cast, so to speak, of all different kinds of Americans, but the primary focus (and the bulk of the word count) is on a family of well-off white dudes - for the most part moderate conservatives, more inclined to compromise than revolution against the status quo. They're fairly shameless opportunists, to boot. But more often than not, they're also humanists, which tempers the fact that their thinking often runs counter to modern sensibility.

I actually don't think this prevents a fair telling of history - Rutherfurd manages the trick of letting us see through a narrator's own limitations to the 'truth' pretty nicely. There is a slight impression that their perspective is the 'reasonable' one, and I can't decide if this reflects the author's own thoughts, or if it's the result of commitment to the (rich, white, male) point-of-view character(s).

There are brief detours into minority points-of-view that I thought were quite good – but they only whet the appetite for more, and he almost never delivers. It occurred to me that they were Rutherford's safety net for making sure we understand that he isn't ignorant of his character's white male privilege; often, we're shown how a minority character is struggling with their circumstances, then shown how the well-off white dudes are ignorant of their plight. It seems like a little bit of bet-hedging.

All that makes it sound as if I didn't enjoy the book, but picking apart authorial intent is honestly part of the fun for me, and I enjoy it more when it's honestly hard to say whether something is accident or genius. And because I prefer to come down on the generous side of that, I don't mind so much that the book is about rich white guys – for better or worse, they're the demographic that had a large role in shaping the events he describes. Also, following a family of moderates proves to be a good vehicle for showing the complexity of events, and contemporary opinions that get lost in our history lessons.
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