Friday, August 31, 2012

HT Recommends: Turn-of-the-Century NYC

Reader Eilonwy writes:

Just happened to stumble upon your historical tapestry page, and love it. I am looking for recommendations for books that take place in turn-of-the-century New York City. I've already read both of Caleb Carr's Alienist books, as well as Beverly Swerling’s City of books, and also Catherine Howe's The House of Velvet and Glass. I've also read several of Victoria Thompson's murder mysteries, but I'm looking for other genres as well. I've probably read others this time period, too, but these are the ones that come to mind. I know this is a fairly specific request, and I'd be interested in books of the same time period that take place in other cities as well, if there aren't that many set in New York, although I have a special love for New York of this time. Thanks in advance, and I really look forward to reading whatever you and your commenters come up with!

Thanks for your request, Eilonwy. This is a favorite setting of mine as well. The late nineteenth/early twentieth century is increasingly popular, and I found a number of books that fit what you're looking for, as well as a few that might work as readalikes for the books that you've mentioned.

The first book I thought of is one where New York City is the major character: Edward Rutherfurd's New York: The Novel. Rutherfurd is a master of these "novels of place," where he follows the growth and development of a physical place through the years. New York isn't as massive and epic as some of Rutherfurd's other novels (Sarum could be used as an actual doorstop should you need one), but the scope is as epic as ever.

Jennifer Donnelly's The Tea Rose is the first in a trilogy. The time period is slightly earlier than the turn of the century (1880s/1890s), and the setting includes Ireland as well as New York City, but it's a very enjoyable epic novel. The other two novels in the trilogy are set in England, but they follow some of the same characters, so if you enjoy The Tea Rose you might enjoy the others as well.

Elizabeth Gaffney's Metropolis is also set during an earlier time period (the 1870s). It's grittier than The Tea Rose, but not quite as gritty as Caleb Carr's The Alienist (which you mentioned in your request). Reviewers have described Metropolis as "Dickensian"--it's full of characters from different walks of life and has a similar epic scope.

City of Ash by Megan Chance was another book that came to mind when I read your request, even though it's not set in New York City. When I read City of Ash last year, I was especially intrigued by the unique setting: 1880s Seattle.  I also enjoyed the vivid characterizations, especially the main character, snotty socialite Geneva Langley. I was pleasantly surprised to find that one of Chance's other novels, An Inconvenient Wife, fits the scope of your request especially well--it's set in 1880s New York. 

If you enjoy Victoria Thompson's Gaslight mystery series, you might also like Stefanie Pintoff's Gotham mysteries, which several reviewers have compared to Caleb Carr. The series is set just after the turn of the century. Start with In the Shadow of Gotham.

I'm not sure if you also read nonfiction, but just in case, I have a few recommendations for you. Murder of the Century by Paul Collins describes the aftermath sensational crime that took place in 1897 New York, and touches on the genesis of American tabloid journalism, early forensic science, and American culture's ongoing fascination with grisly crimes.

For a portrait of wealth and splendor in turn-of-the-century New York, you can pick your family: Vanderbilt or Astor. There are plenty of books about both of these storied families, who continue to captivate readers' interest more than one hundred years after they ruled the New York social scene. Two titles to start with: Consuelo and Alva Vanderbilt: The Story of a Daughter and a Mother in the Gilded Age by Amanda MacKenzie Stuart, and Mrs. Astor's New York: Money and Social Power in a Gilded Age by Eric Homberger.

Finally, a couple of out-of-the-box suggestions:

Since you liked Beverly Swerling's epic saga of New York City, you might also like Sara Donati's Into the Wilderness series. The books are mainly set in upstate New York, but the epic love story of Elizabeth and Nathaniel Bonner has captivated countless readers, and Donati's attention to historical detail and love for both her setting and her characters makes this series a must-read for fans of sagas. The first is called Into the Wilderness--and they're all excellent.

Penny Vincenzi is known as "queen of the bonkbusters" in her native England, and her books tend to be contemporary (or almost-contemporary) escapist reads of the glitz-and-glamour variety. Her Spoils of Time trilogy, set in London between World War I and the 1960s, is a favorite of mine. Vincenzi follows the Lytton family, who made their fortune in publishing, through all the major events of the era. If you're expecting the sudsy drama of Vincenzi's usual books, you'll get it here--but you'll also get a surprising dose of historical detail, and some extremely memorable scenes. (Seven years later, I still remember the scene where Celia Lytton is caught up in the bombing of London during World War II.) Start with No Angel, the first in the trilogy, and make sure you set aside plenty of time to read--it's tough to put this one down.

I hope I've given you a few new titles to think about! If anyone else has additional books to add to Eilonwy's "to read" pile, please let us know in the comments. And if we can help you find some interesting books to read, send us an e-mail at


  1. I have Elizabeth Gaffney's Metropolis on my TBR pile at home, as well as the last book in Swerling's series...thanks for reminding me that I need to read these two books sometime soon! I really love this time period as well. And I can second the recommendation for Sara Donati's series, which is much larger in scope than just NYC, but wonderful all the same.

    Another one I've seen around is called Gods of Gotham by Lyndsay Faye. I haven't read it, but it's gotten quite good reviews.

  2. Great list. I have a few of the books mentioned on my shelf, but unfortunately, with the exception of Sara Donati's Into the Wilderness series, I've not read them yet.

    The only book I can think to add to the list is Adriana Trigiani's The Shoemaker's Wife, part of which takes place around WWI in NYC.

  3. Thank you so much for these suggestions!! I'm so pleased to add all of these- fiction *and* nonfiction- to my TBR list! ::happy dance::

  4. Some great books in your list Nanette! I love the Into the Wilderness series (hi Beth!) and the Tea Rose trilogy (the second book The Winter Rose which moves back to London in particular) and Beverly Swerlings books too!

  5. This is a great list & my reading list has grown! The Tea Rose Trilogy rings bells for some reason, but I am sure thati have not read them yet. I agree with the Rutherford comment & have New York on loan from the library.