Some times it doesn't pay to get super, super excited.
The book opens on the eve of the 20th century. Gina Attaviano and her brother Salvatore along with their mother have just made the journey from Italy to their new life in America. It was to have been a journey that the whole family made but their father and older brother unfortunately didn't survive long enough to see their dream come true. The family land in Boston and there they are met by two young men who offer them lodgings before they journey on to the immigrant town of Lawrence, 20 miles away, where they will be living and working.
The two young men and Ben and Harry, and they are working as managers for Harry's father. Their job is to find people as they come off the boats to rent apartments in the buildings that he owns. Ben is charismatic and charming and is instantly smitten by the young Italian girl, but Harry is distant and aloof, like he is in most aspects of his life. He is studying economics at Harvard but is interested in the many different revolutionary theories that abound at this time - socialism and communism among them.
Ben is studying to become an engineer and passionately believes in the proposal to build a canal through Panama, and it on the premise of getting signatures for a petition in relation to the canal that he and Harry begin to spend their spare time in Lawrence with Gina. While Ben is still smitten with Gina, it is the more intense and quiet Harry that captures Gina's eye and she begins to plot and plan ways to gain his attention. She works as much as she can, often in manual jobs, to try and save money both for nice clothes but also to help her family.
When Gina approaches Harry with a business proposal the two young people spend more and more time together, but still Harry does not appear to notice Gina. He is a man of good breeding, who tries to do what is expected of him by his family and the fact that he has a long term girlfriend that everyone expects him to marry is enough for him, even though he knows he doesn't love Alice.
The book jumps forward a few years, and now we find that Harry is engaged to Alice with a wedding on the horizon, he is still trying to finish his studies but now he is working as a teacher at Harvard. This time when he meets Gina (who now goes by the more Americanised name of Jane) sparks fly. This is really, really late in the novel and to be honest it was the most interesting part and not only because we finally got to see some chemistry between the two main characters! It was in this section that I saw glimpses of the storytelling ability that I have seen and loved before from this author!
As I see it, there are a couple of problems with this novel. The first one, which is pretty major, is Harry. We are told that he is funny, but I didn't see it.This is a man who appears to have no drive, no direction. He chafes at the fact that his father still controls all the purse strings but doesn't have much interest at all in actually finding a career. Even his father, who is prepared to wait years for him to finally work out what he is going to do is getting exasperated with him. The only time there is any spark to Harry is when he gets involved in the political discussions around him.
Which brings me to the second issue. There is so much political yada-yada-yada in this book. It goes on and on and on, and there were times when I could feel myself almost dropping off to sleep. This is the complete opposite of my experience reading the first couple of Bronze Horseman books. In that case, I started The Bronze Horseman in the evening, read all night, called in sick the next day so I could sleep (shhhhh....don't tell anyone) and then went to the shop to buy the second book and then proceeded to read that all night. I ended up going to work the next day because, you know, it would be wrong to call in sick from overdosing on an author two days in a row! It possibly says something that I found the talk about first the fight to build the Panama Canal and then the difficulties when the project got underway far more interesting than the part of the story which was focused on Harry.
When Paullina Simons was here last year, she talked about how really this is the first half of Harry and Jane's story. The second half isn't out yet so obviously I can't gauge how much extraneous page filling there is in that book. However, if this book is anything to go by, you could get rid of a whole heap of the political talk, and then combine the two book into one and hopefully get a good story! I get that it was important to establish the character's ideological beliefs because otherwise how would it make sense that they chose to go and live in Communist Russia, which we know they do through the Bronze Horseman books, but as a reader I felt like I was drowning in it.
What this book did make me want to do is immerse myself back into the world of Tatiana and Alexander so maybe if I have some time I might reread at least some of it. It might give me more of a clue as to why I should be interested in the next part of Alexander's parent's story because based on this book alone, I probably wouldn't be. And I can't tell you how disappointing that is for me.
I am really torn on how to rate this book. If it wasn't a book by an author who I have a great deal of affection for, I would probably have given it either a 2 or 2.5 out of 5. In the end I went for between 2.5 but rounding it up to a generous 3.
Over the years I have often wondered why this author, who is a very successful author here in Australia, is not more well known in her home country of the US. While this book has been picked up by William Morrow to be published there, unfortunately I don't think this is the book that will be the success over there that she needs!
Will I be reading the next book when it comes out? Most likely and if Paullina is back in Australia, then I will probably go and see her again too. I will, however, be trying very hard not to build huge expectations up before I get to read the book.
Synopsis (US version)
At the turn of the century and the dawning of the modern world, the fortunes and future of the Barringtons and Attavianos become intertwined, on a collision course between the old and the new, between what is expected and what is desired, what is chosen and what is bestowed, what is given and what is taken away. As America races headlong into the future, much will be lost and much will be gained for Gina and Harry, and for a nation and a people that have the blessing and the curse of unrivaled opportunity . . . and unlimited potential.