Thursday, August 4, 2011

REVIEW: City of Promise by Beverly Swerling

In the year 1864, the bloody Civil War is coming to a close and Joshua Turner returns home to New York City where his family has resided for two centuries.  Having lost a leg in the war, Joshua recognizes an opportunity in the remarkable growth occurring in Manhattan.  The city is becoming increasingly crowded with horses, carriages, trains, department stories and the mansions of the wealthy-all of which bringing in more workers.  Josh realizes that while the land may run out eventually, there is plenty of room to build up and he sets about realizing his ambitious dream of bringing housing to the middle class.

Molly Brannigan also has big dreams.  Hers consist of marriage and babies but at 22 she is convinced she'll be a spinster, especially with being brought.up by her Aunt Eileen-owner of the ritziest bordello in town.  When Molly and Joshua meet at Macy's one day, it is clear they are made for one another.  Through Josh Molly has a chance at her dreams and together they work towards Joshua's dream of great buildings in the sky but there are many factions that don't want them to succeed.  Josh soon learns that pursuing his dream is a dangerous path, not just to himself but to all those he holds dear.

This is the 4th book in Swerling's City series.  Having only read the first one I was a little concerned that I would be missing important points by not reading the 2nd and 3rd books first.  I am happy to say that this book read like a stand alone novel.  This is a fascinating look at the real birth of New York City as it embraced industry and a more modern feel.  Vanderbilt's Grand Central Depot has just been built,  the corridor of department stores known as the Ladies' mile supplies every need and the glittering mansions of the most affluent are on full display.  Of course with this rapid growth comes more people and with more people comes increasing problems with overcrowding, lack of housing and transportation issues.  With Molly's support Joshua conceives of the idea of building French Flats (apartments) which cater to the middle class instead of the rich. 

While building apartments may not seem too exciting the story comes alive because of the characters-the formidable Aunt Eileen who built her fortune running a whorehouse, Ebenezer Tickle-the dwarf foreman who has the know how to make Joshua's dreams a reality, the mysterious Captain Clifford-a man from Joshua's past who does not want to see him succeed and a wide assortment of other equally interesting characters to add depth to the story.  There is also the evolving relationship of Molly and Josh whose marriage must weather all sorts of hardships.  What I loved about this book and City of Dreams (the first in the series) is the detailed picture the author paints of New York at the point in time she writes about.I haven't found another author yet who does Old New York atmosphere like Beverly Swerling.

Now onto the plot which is basically that Joshua wants to build these apartments and for some reason Captain Clifford does not want him to succeed nor do a couple of other mysterious characters.  They take rather drastic steps in the novel to stop Joshua from building these apartments.  Herein lies the big problem in this book.  Why did they not want him to succeed?   The motivations these people have for constantly trying to throw a wrench in the Turner's plans is never really explained.  Is it because they recognize the value of the land and want it for themselves?  Is it because of some personal vendetta against the Turner and Devrey families? Is it just because?  Who knows?  I really wish that would have been explained a little bit more.  Also for a book I enjoyed so much this had to be one of the most anticlimactic endings ever.  An event occurred much in the manner that events occurred in the rest of the book and then that was it.  The end.  I didn't really get any closure with any of the characters which I really didn't like.  It left me wondering- And?  What happened to them all after that?  I guess I'll never know.  I think this is the biggest thing that kept me from rating it higher.  There were also a few minor characters that once their purpose was revealed it left me wondering why they were in the story at all.  Still despite these things it was a really enjoyable book and I recommend reading it if you're interested in this period.   Just be prepared for the what the hell was that??? ending.

Side note: I found this map of New York City in 1865 which I thought was interesting.  I would have loved to have had this when I was reading so I could have identified all the places they were talking about when I was reading.  Even though Swerling did a splendid job of laying out the city with her writing, this gives an even better idea of what the city looked like then.

City of Promise is being released on August 9th, 2011

I received this book from the Publisher via Simon and Schuster's Galley Grab.   These are my honest thoughts on the book.


  1. Sounds a saga as well. Realizing a dream and making it work for you is also nice.

  2. I really enjoyed the process of reading this book, as I did with all the earlier books in this series, but as I started to think about it after I had finished it I was left wondering whether I just had missed the explanation of why it was that the bad guys wanted to destroy Joshua in particular.

    And, for a last book in a series, I totally wanted an epilogue giving me the basic of how the characters lived out their lives.