A Novel of War and Desire in Old Manhattan
by Beverly Swerling
512 pages, Simon & Schuster
Review by Kate Kasserman
The sequel to City of Dreams, City of Glory takes place almost wholly over the course of a week and a half in 1814 rather than the hundred-plus years of CoD, and I had high hopes that most of my complaints about that prior novel would be magically whisked away by concentrating the action on a single basic plot-line and set of characters (yes, I know, old-fashioned that way, me). However, I find myself doing a perfect volte face. Swerling did better, in my view, with the loosely connected vignettes after all; the mini storylets gave her the liberty to be rather (!) melodramatic and to digress on points of technical research interest without any of it seeming overbearing or tangential. While there’s a lot to like about City of Glory, the history-wonk stuff and the over-the-top “because it suits the plot, that’s why he did it” characterizations and motivations ended up being a bit much-ish. The book is a reasonably fun and certainly readable way to bone up on New York City towards the end of the War of 1812, but if I weren’t into that kind of thing (which I am), I might’ve chucked it across the room (and then picked it up again, because a book has to be REALLY awful for me not to need to know what happens…and City of Glory certainly isn’t that).
The action centers on Joyful Patrick Turner, our latest entry in the intertwined Turner-Devrey families. Joyful is a talented surgeon, per the Turner trope, but for once not the bestest bestest ever, and anyway it becomes moot when his left hand gets atomized by a British cannonball. He won’t reduce himself to doctoring (which is basically slappin’ leeches on people) because he thinks it’s a damned waste of time and doesn’t do his patients any good, so he decides to make hay with the fact that he was raised mostly in Canton and consequently expects he can do pretty well as a China trader. Also, he needs money so that he can marry the hot Huguenot babe he’s jonesing for.
The love story I found fairly reprehensible. Without getting into heavy spoiler territory, while Joyful is mooning over the golden-haired, ladylike, preternaturally intelligent Manon, he’s banging the madam of a cathouse that he helped her set up and of which he remains (secretly) part-owner. That madam is a light-skinned runaway slave returned to New York with a new name, and she is desperately in love with Joyful. Joyful’s rationalization of his behavior is along the lines of, “Oh well, I can’t help loving who I love, and I just don’t love the madam, so it’s onto Miss Perfect with me! In the meantime, I don’t quite want to end it yet (seems awkward), so let’s keep doing it. I feel bad about it though, so we’ll reduce the frequency slightly.” It is certainly a valid point to make about how many people selfishly (and lazily) behave, but it struck me as out of place in a melodrama. Joyful did not endear himself to me much, despite many set-pieces where he Does The Right Thing (barring with his wimminfolk). The story does not help, further, by being so cruel to the soon-to-be-discarded mistress, and having her suffer some quite remarkably unpleasant events, while Miss Golden of course remains largely untouched.
Anyway, Joyful isn’t starting off with enough cash, and he needs to wriggle and scheme to get the goods to set himself up as a trader – which puts him, frequently all but inexplicably, on a collision course with Nefarious Others who want to do Everything Bad, including destroy the freshly hatched and very struggling United States. Swerling trots out a wide range of people and constituencies of the time – traders, the desperately poor of all races, financiers, forgers, working girls, homeless weirdoes, child laborers, pirates, jewelers, Chinese, Jews, famous real people (such as Jacob Astor and Dolley Madison), cops, blackbirders (scummy gangs that kidnap anyone any shade of brown darker than milk to sell them as escaped slaves, whether they are or not) – and while she has a vivid touch in making these people recognizable, a lot of them seemed to have been thrown into the mix on the flimsiest of pretexts. There are long subplots whose relationship to, well, ANYTHING was tenuous at best. Thumbless Wu is a standout here – a Chinese stowaway who gave up untold wealth in his homeland to STARVE in America because he heard that “you can get anything here” and he wants to set up as an opium trader – has anyone EVER been QUITE that stupid? – and yet who becomes brilliant to the point of positively psychic in figuring out that laudanum is also an opiate – all this aside from the fact that it has only the tiniest blessed thing to do with anything else. (I am stretching, even, by saying that it does have a tiny relationship; what the whole Thumbless Wu angle serves is to give a reason for a certain captain to be fired from his post, which could just as well have happened for no reason, or one without scores of pages devoted to an elaborate backstory.)
It is always a temptation, when you study a period of history in-depth, to want to throw everything interesting you discover into the mix. I think that’s what happened here. Trivial details, like the fact that women’s drawers were crotchless at the time (yours would be too, I think, if you had all them thar skirts and were aiming for a chamber-pot), get brought up repeatedly and with undue attention. A whole excursion with the British force that burned our capital is utterly irrelevant to the story. It lets Swerling bring in the delicious true-life fact about how Dolley Madison remained in the White House till the VERY last second when the troops were marching her way, and delayed herself yet further by insisting upon freeing the enormous and hard-to-manage the Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington (good call, too, since the lobsterbacks torched the place). It’s a cool little tidbit, but really, it just wasn’t necessary (in the book), and working it into the story feels contrived.
All in all, I suppose, City of Glory is an amuse-bouche, of remarkable size. The detail and the range of characters are highly engaging; the plot and people require a dedicated and oft-renewed suspension of disbelief. Still, I have to admit that I had a pretty good time.