May 17, 2010


A Novel of Nieuw Amsterdam and Early Manhattan
by Beverly Swerling
592 pages, Simon & Schuster

Review by Kate Kasserman

City of Dreams starts off strong, with an English brother and sister arriving as penniless immigrants in 1661 New Amsterdam via a one-step-ahead-of-the-law sojourn in the Netherlands. Lucas is a talented barber who can’t keep his hands to himself and practices outside the bounds of what his guild permits (hence one step ahead of the law), and Sally an equally talented apothecary with a flair for whipping up laudanum, the morphine of the time. They are devoted to each other, but not for long: a series of slightly soap-opera-y (with a higher explicit violence content) events contrive to put the sibs at permanent loggerheads. Lucas forces Sally to marry the city’s only official legal physician, a mean-spirited dolt whom she loathes and who doesn’t like her much either but is addicted to her super-fine laudanum. Lucas does this for decidedly mixed reasons – the doctor will back off from his persecution of Lucas, he’ll protect Sally from the consequences of her pregnancy (she was raped, but that won’t protect her from The Glorious People – she’s still unmarried, and that is that), and…he’ll give Lucas the money he thinks he needs to marry the woman he loves. Anyway, Sally chooses to focus on the less generous aspects of Lucas’s motivation, and it is all off between them.

And then we skip forward in time, to another generation of the Turner (Lucas’s line…which is really Sally’s line, for another melodramatic twist) and Devrey (Sally’s official descendants) families. This is one of the things that kind of frustrated me about this book; it is basically several linked novellas of varying quality. When you like a set of characters, well, too bad, because they won’t be with you for long! What holds the stories together is the city of New Amsterdam/New York itself (lovingly researched, and the few anachronisms I noticed were trivial and quite defensible in the service of making the story more readable), medical history through some quite thoroughly horrifying and fascinating developments, occasionally a few points of fact from one story to the next, and that the characters who drive the story are Turners and Devreys, who never do seem quite to manage to get along. Not through the end of the eighteenth century, at least, which as far as we go in this installment of the series.

Swerling covers some awfully interesting history. Occasionally she lapses into brief info-dumps, which is probably unavoidable given how much time she covers and the big jumps between generations, but I found that pretty painless. There is, though, a weak spot in a lot of the people running through the various stories: they’re colorful, sure, but a lot of them struck me as a bit flat and one-note. People will do the Worst or Stupidest Thing Possible in a way that doesn’t feel true to an actual human being – sure, some folks suddenly go all derrrrr sometimes, but this is a lot of people doing so a lot of the time. So while the plot moves along, I didn’t always care as much as I would have liked to. I was SOAKED in suspension of disbelief about the deliciously immersive world…but the people, nah, far more frequently than I would have liked. It kept my interest in some of the stories at a remove. Still, a lot happens, and it moves quickly, so there’s always something new to look at.

A few characters, though, were top-notch: the love story between Jennet (a Turner), beautiful and with the uncanny knack for medicine that so many of her family have, and Solomon, a much-older Brazilian Jewish immigrant, ugly and a brothel-keeper (!) who’s been STALKING her since she was, like, twelve (!!!) had not a particularly deep complexity, I suppose, but a fascinating one. I mean, this is not a relationship that looks too promising when you run the numbers, and Swerling doesn’t sugar-coat Solomon’s four-alarm control-freakery and creepiness and opportunism. And yet – they genuinely love each other, and make it work remarkably well, impossibility be damned. When it comes a cropper, you know exactly why – it isn’t a contrivance for dramatic effect, for once, but because we know Solomon so well, we can see perfectly well how this (I’m not going to spoiler this corker) was one hurdle he just couldn’t get over.

I can’t help thinking that all the stories could have had this solidity and resonance, if they’d had enough time to unfold; but what there is remains interesting enough, with the promise that maybe the next books in the series will manage to populate the High Drama with more consistently believable players.

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