Thursday, July 08, 2010

Alphabet in Historical Fiction: Beverly Swerling's New York

New York is one of the places on my one day list - one day I will get there! I have been to other parts of America but I haven't made it to the east coast at all yet.

I was looking at the books that I had out from the library and was tossing up between reading a couple of novels, when I realised that City of God by Beverly Swerling would be a perfect choice for the letter N for the Alphabet in Historical Fiction challenge hosted by Historical Tapestry - N for New York!

The main characters of these novels are the Turners and the Devreys - originally descended from a brother and sister, this is a family that is intrinsically linked to New York from its early days, and who are intensely divided over the years by any number of differences of opinion!

New York is as much a character in the novels of Beverly Swerling as any of the people who live their lives through the pages of her novels and we follow the growth and expansion from a small colony known as Nieuw Amsterdam during the 1660s and beyond in City of Dreams: A Novel of Nieuw Amsterdam and Early Manhattan, to northern New York State on the frontiers in Shadowbrook: A Novel of Love, War, and the Birth of America, to New York in 1814 when the city is being blockaded by the British in City of Glory: A Novel of War and Desire in Old Manhattan, and now to 1833 as the city is in the grip of religious fervour in City of God: A Novel of Passion and Wonder in Old New York.

The scope of Swerling's novels is pretty big. We get to meet many famous names - like the Astors for example - and the author covers not only the development of the city itself, but also medical advances, major historical events, development of New York institutions like Wall Street and Tiffany & Co, the issues around various waves of immigration and so much more!

You can read my reviews of the first three books at the following links:

City of Dreams
City of Glory

And you can have a look at trailers for each of the books at Beverly Swerling's website.

In the meantime, here are my thoughts about City of God: A Novel of Passion and Wonder in Old New York, the latest instalment in this excellent series.

City of God, the latest installment in Beverly Swerling's gripping saga of old New York, takes readers to Manhattan's clamorous streets as the nation struggles to find a compromise between slave and free, but hears the drums of war. This is New York when one synagogue is no longer adequate for thousands of Jewish immigrants, when New Evangelicals rouse complacent Protestants with the promise of born-again salvation, and when it first sees Catholic nuns and calls them whores of Satan. It is New York when ships bring the fabulous wealth of nations to its wharves and auction houses, while a short distance away rival gangs fight to the death with broken bottles and teeth filed to points.

Into this churning cauldron comes young Dr. Nicholas Turner. Nick knows that the discoveries of antisepsis and anesthesia promise medical miracles beyond the dreams of ages. He learns that to make such progress reality he must battle the city's corrupt politics and survive the snake pit that is Bellevue Hospital, all while resisting his love for the beautiful Carolina Devrey, his cousin's wife. Sam Devrey, head of the shipping company that bears his name and a visionary who believes the future will be ushered in by mighty clipper ships spreading acres of sail, battles demons of his own. The life he lives with Carolina in the elegant brownstone on newly fashionable Fifth Avenue is a charade meant to disguise his heart's true home, the secret downtown apartment of the exquisite Mei-hua, his Chinese child-bride. The worlds of all four are imperiled when Sam must rely on Nick's skills to save the woman he loves, and only Nick's honor guards Sam's secret. On a night when promises of hellfire seem to become reality and the city nearly burns to the ground, Carolina and Mei-hua confront the truth of their duplicitous marriages. Rage and revenge join love and passion as driving forces in a story played out against the background of the glittering New York that rises from the ashes, where Delmonico's and the Astor House host bejeweled women and top-hatted men, both with the din of commerce in their ears and the glint of gold in their eyes.

As always, Swerling has conjured a dazzling cast of characters to people her city. Among those seeking born-again salvation are Addie Bellingham, befriended by the widow Manon Turner but willing to betray her, and Lilac Langton, who confesses her sins but avoids mentioning that she's a skilled abortionist in a city that has recently made abortion a crime. Ben Klein, a brilliant young physician, must balance devotion to his mentor and dedication to research with duty to the Jewish community. Wilbur Randolf, Carolina's father, indulges her in everything but fails her when she needs him most. Jenny Worthington, Wilbur's longtime mistress, is driven by avarice to make common cause with Fearless Flannagan, a member of a New York police force as corrupt as the city it serves. Ah Chee, Mei-hua's devoted servant, struggles through Manhattan's streets on bound feet and burns incense to the kitchen god in this place of foreign devils. They are all here, heroines and saints, villains and victims, and a vanished New York made to live again in an intricate tale of old debts and new rivalries.

This is the fourth book I have read by Beverly Swerling, and I have to come to expect a number of things from them. One is that there will be strong focus on medical procedures, one is that there will be a further development in the Turner-Devrey rivalry, that there will be a strong willed woman who comes to the fore, and that we will get to see some of the key events in American history through the course of the pages. This book is no exception. We get all of that and more.

The book spans a period of around 20 years prior to the start of the Civil War. At this time, there has been a sharp influx in the number of people who call New York home with many of the new immigrants being either Jewish or Catholic, particularly of Irish descent. With them comes a level of religious diversity that is not necessarily integrated into the life of the city, particularly as there is a religious revival movement occurring at the same time. The city struggles to deal with the growth, particularly the unprecedented levels of poverty. For the revivalists, poverty seems to be the price of sin, so any attempts to help the poor are rebuffed, and any attempts at scientific improvements are actively discouraged.

The main characters at the start of the novel are Samuel Devreys and Nicholas Turner. Samuel is head of Devreys Shipping, answerable only to Jacob Astor. He spent many years in the Orient as a youngster and in his heart would love to return there. Nicholas Turner is a doctor who has recently moved back to New York and wants to start his work at the hospital that his grandfather worked at before him. Nicholas hopes to improve the atrocious conditions at Bellevue but on all sides is surrounded by corruption and bribery. His big passion though is research. When he hears of a new substance that promises pain free surgery, he is very excited but when his display of the new technology is sabotaged he finds himself instead in private practice.

Samuel is a man with divided priorities. He wants to reclaim his birthright from the Astors, and he is working on a design for the fastest ships known to man, to try and exploit the links that he has to Chinese traders, specifically within the opium trade. He is unhappily married to a lovely young woman, Caroline Randolph, but his heart belongs to his Chinese wife Mei-Hua. In his drive to reclaim his shipping company, he over strives and miscalculates, and finds his life in a downward spiral, particularly once he starts to sample the wares.

Samuel and Nicholas's paths cross on numerous occasions, and as a result he is one of the few who knows of Samuel's secret life after he saves Mei-Hua following a botched abortion and later delivers their daughter Mei-Lin. Nicholas has his own cross to bear though, for he is in love with Caroline. The relationships are unorthodox and to an extent must be hidden in this time when appearances matter more than anything.

The themes and subplots within this novel are numerous, and there are a couple of strands at least that do seem to get a little bit lost in the mix. For example, Lilac Langton's role in the novel could have been key without having quite so much time spent on it. Either that, or she needed to be more of a major character and had more of a major role. What we had instead was pages dedicated to her but the actually thread of story for her seemed rather superfluous to the story as a whole.  In addition to the medical achievements of the age, the coming age of steam shipping,  and the conflict between the old ways and the new (from a Jewish and a Chinese perspective), there is also discussion of slavery (in particular the underground railway), of the growth of the ever expanding city (including references to the plan to start Central Park, the start of Tiffany and Co, for example), the influence and control of criminals in the developing city, and so much more.

For me, this book didn't quite reach the same stellar reading experience of City of Dreams and City of Glory, but I enjoyed it enough to still be pleased at the news of of another book featuring the Turners and the Devreys and I can't wait to read it! Just in the last few pages, there was something that happened that makes me hope that Caroline's son Zachary plays a prominent role in the next book as he has the capacity to be a multi faceted character.

This was also my July read for the Year of the Historical Challenge.

Rating: 4/5


  1. I have never been to New-York either, but would love to visit there one day!

  2. Marg, New York is on my list as well. I may be able to convince James to drive through when we go to Washington DC next week. Keeping my fingers crossed. :)

  3. I love historical fiction, but had not heard about these books-they're going on my wishlist at GoodReads. Thanks for the thoughtful and in-depth review!

  4. Heather, it is a good series.

    Leya, it would be a shame to be so close and not go!

    Zibilee, meet you there!

  5. Marg, thankyou for these reviews, timely in my life.
    A touch of when the student is ready the master appears...
    I have ordered the 1st 2 from the library and can't wait.
    New York and Paris are places in my heart, I wonder if I might ever get there. Love visiting in a virtual fashion, Google streetview is fabulous.
    thanks also for your support and encouragement...

  6. You've really got to stop posting about series that I didn't know about. I'm going broke, LOL.

    If you do ever decide to make the trip to NYC, drop me a line and I'll meet you there....we'll hit every fantabulous bookstore in the city and then go swing by a deli for a picnic lunch and go read our books in Central Park!

  7. That sounds like the perfect way to spend the day Michele!

    Jane, I love that sentiment of places in my heart. For me, New York is one of those, and I would love to get back to Barcelona for the same reason!

  8. I have always wondered about this series, since it takes place in NY at all different time periods. I don't actually know too much about the history of this great city I live in. I do hope you come visit sometime soon, it would be so much fun to meet you here and go explore some historical sites and museums together. :)

  9. Marg, thanks for highlighting this author! Her books sound quite interesting, and I haven't heard of her before.

    I do hope you make it to NYC, and multiple times!

  10. Sounds like an intriguing read...I've only read City of Dreams so far, but will keep an eye out for the later installments in the story.

  11. Thanks for this review. I've never heard of this trilogy, but they're going on my to-read list. I got to spend a couple of days in NYC a few years ago, and it truly is a fabulous city. Not quite as awesome as London, but close!



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