The House at Riverton by Kate Morton Sunday, Oct 7 2012 

When teenager Grace Reeves comes to Riverton House as the new housemaid in 1914, she is reminded often of how fortunate she is to work for such an excellent family. What Grace does not know when she arrives at Riverton is how caught up she will become in the lives and dramas of the Hartford family, particularly sisters Hannah and Emmeline. Over the years, Grace remains devoted to Hannah, who trusts and confides in her. Then, in 1924, life for the family is shattered when a handsome young poet shoots himself at a Riverton House summer party, and only Hannah, Emmeline, and Grace witness the tragedy.

Decades later, Grace is in her late nineties and living out her final days in an English nursing home. She has remained largely silent about her life in service and that terrible summer night for decades, but when a young director making a film about the poet’s death contacts her, memories come rushing back. Finally, as she nears death, Grace confronts the secrets of the Hartford family that have haunted her for a lifetime.

The House at Riverton is almost as addictive as Downton Abbey and a must-read for fans of the acclaimed British series. While the characters are all fairly conventional for a novel like this, they are still interesting and have complicated relationships with one another. It’s a suspenseful read with more than a few surprises, and Kate Morton is subtle enough to plant certain ideas in the reader’s mind without making the book too predictable. The housing and fashion details of the early 20th century are rich and a lot of fun, but they never overwhelm the novel. The focus is very definitely on the characters and the events that shape them.

This is mostly a light, escapist read, and the drama and suspense are what will catch your interest and keep you reading. However, The House at Riverton does shed some light on issues that are explored more deeply in some other works about the era. World War I is featured prominently, with soldiers’ “shell shock” (better known today as post-traumatic stress disorder) coming to the fore through the character of Alfred, a footman at Riverton House. One thing that becomes very clear in the novel, much as it does in Downton Abbey, is how exacting the standards of those in service could be. Servants, especially those of high rank and considerable experience, were sometimes just as pretentious as their employers, if not more so. Disdainful comments about other servants and even an employer’s family and associates were quite common, albeit risky.

When it comes to life in service, though, the book has the most to say about the devotion many servants felt toward their employers and the challenges that loyalty presented. Grace is so loyal to Hannah that she feels a familial obligation toward her, and it becomes impossible for Grace to imagine leaving her position even when it is perhaps no longer the right place for her to be. Hannah’s troubles and secrets become Grace’s own, and they haunt the former housemaid for the rest of her life. While Grace is both thrilled and honored by Hannah’s trust in her, their closeness doesn’t change the reality of the huge class difference between them. Hannah does seem to care sincerely about Grace, but she also always has the upper hand in their relationship, and there is little Grace can do if her employer becomes angry and no longer wishes to trust or be kind to her.  This highlights something discussed in other books, TV shows, and movies about life in service: no matter how dedicated and close servants became to their employers, there was always going to be a distance between them. While it was understandable that servants would come to see employers as their own family (those who worked in service were prohibited, or at least strongly discouraged, from marrying and having children), such feelings could be very dangerous, both practically and emotionally. It’s hard not to wonder whether Grace could have saved herself much heartache and stress over the course of her life if she had been somewhat more detached from the Hartford sisters.

The House at Riverton offers a great escape into another era and offers plenty of insight into life upstairs and downstairs. If there’s a Downton Abbey shaped hole in your heart right now, this book will help fill it, though it may also make you all the more anxious for next season to hurry up and get to America already!

10 Reading Suggestions for the Twenty-Something Woman Thursday, Sep 27 2012 

Thanks to Twitter, today I came across this list of books every girl in her 20s should read. While it includes two novels I love (Pride and Prejudice and The Joy Luck Club), I was taken aback, as a woman in my 20s, at how many self-help books and “chick-lit” novels about shopping it included. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with reading such books, but I couldn’t help thinking that many reading women my age might be looking for something more substantial, which is why I was glad to find this list via Twitter soon afterward. Inspired, I decided to come up with my own list of books I think many twenty-something women would appreciate.

A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor

Despite the title, this is no dating self-help manual. Flannery O’Connor’s first collection of short stories explores a wide variety of uncomfortable themes, including violence, racism, greed, and religious faith. Even if you don’t agree with all of O’Connor’s conclusions, it’s impossible to ignore the difficult questions raised in her sparse yet powerful prose. She was a woman unafraid to write about the same disturbing characters, settings, and themes as men; A Good Man is Hard to Find and her other works demonstrate a talent that has frequently been overlooked in favor of male 20th century writers.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Set in the not-so-distant future, The Handmaid’s Tale is a frightening cautionary tale about what will happen if political freedom and women’s rights are lost to totalitarianism. Offred, once a woman with a job and a family to love, is separated from all she’s ever known and earned after an extreme group of theocrats overthrows the U.S. government. This is a call to action for women of all ages, but especially the young, to take seriously their safety, health, and freedom. You can read my recent review of this book here.

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

Set in late 20th and early 21st century Afghanistan, A Thousand Splendid Suns is the story of Mariam and Laila, two very different women eventually married to the same abusive husband. Though unsure of each other at first, Mariam and Laila form a strong bond, setting in motion a heartbreaking but beautiful story of love, family, and sacrifice in the face of their society’s never-ending challenges. Beautifully written and strikingly relevant, this novel presents what is easily one of the most powerful friendships in contemporary literature.

Washington Square by Henry James

In 19th century New York City, rich but unsophisticated Catherine Sloper leads a lonely life under the thumb of a father who constantly berates her. She falls hopelessly in love with Morris Townsend, failing to see that he only wants to marry her for her family’s fortune. It’s not one of the most exciting novels you’ll ever read, but there is something very satisfying about Catherine’s journey away from insecurity and a need for male approval and toward a more independent life. Also be sure to check out The Heiress, the excellent 1949 film adaptation of the play based on Washington Square. It’s one of those rare cases where the movie is even better than the book.

The Red Tent by Anita Diamant

In the Old Testament, much is said about Jacob’s many sons, but there is only a brief and violent passage about Dinah, his only daughter. In The Red Tent, Anita Diamant crafts a story of Dinah’s life and gives voice to other women largely ignored in the Book of Genesis. These women form their own society within the one dominated by the men of their family, where they support one another through difficult times and defy many of the beliefs of their husbands, fathers, and brothers. This is a gorgeous and moving novel that brings a forgotten character to life and questions the restricted, simplistic view of women in the Bible.

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

After marrying the wealthy widower Maxim de Winter following a brief courtship, the unnamed narrator returns with him to Manderley, his country estate. There, she immediately finds herself living in the shadow of Maxim’s first wife, the charming and beautiful Rebecca. Soon, the second Mrs. de Winter is also caught up in the mysteries and secrets of Manderley—and of what really happened to Rebecca. The romantic suspense is the main draw here, but Rebecca is also an exploration of the challenges a woman faces when married to a much more powerful man, as well as of the frustration of being compared to other women in beauty and sophistication.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

Chances are you already read this classic in high school or perhaps college, but if it’s been a while, I encourage you to give it another read. I read it three times between eighth grade and college graduation and found something new and deeper in it every time. Jane herself is a sympathetic but flawed heroine, torn between her love for the brooding Mr. Rochester and the possibilities of a freer life away from him. Her life story is not only a legendary romantic melodrama, but also a powerful commentary on the place of women, orphans, and the poor in the early Victorian era. Whether you’re a student of literature or simply enjoy a great story, this one is worth a second, third, or even fourth look. (Bonus: read Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys for a postcolonial take on Jane Eyre and a look at the shortcomings of the book’s 19th century feminism.)

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë

The lesser known of two novels by the least known Brontë sister, this book was considered coarse and controversial when it was first published in 1848. A feminist work in a time when feminism didn’t have a name, it tells the story of Helen, a woman abused by her alcoholic husband but strong enough to fight back for her own sake and for the well-being of her child. Though its questioning of Victorian social mores and English law horrified some critics at the time, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was revolutionary in its brutal honesty about marital abuse, and it remains relevant for women today.

The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant

In Renaissance Florence, Alessandra Cecchi is fascinated with art and shows a talent for drawing. Unfortunately, her family disapproves of this interest and discourages her from pursuing it, eventually forcing her into an arranged marriage with a much older man. Despite this marriage and the turbulence in her city, Alessandra finds ways to explore her love of art and her attraction to a gifted painter employed by her family. It’s a lighter read than most on this list, but historical fiction fans will undoubtedly enjoy the incredible Renaissance detail, and it certainly provides an interesting story of a woman finding her place in a world where she’s told she doesn’t belong.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

I’ll be the first to agree that this classic love story never gets old, but it’s not about getting your “happily ever after” through “sass and perseverance.” It’s about questioning the typical standards for women and marriage during Austen’s time, and about finding love through personal growth, forgiveness, and learning to be less judgmental. And please, when you’re finished with the book, skip the good-but-nothing-special 2005 film adaptation and go for the 1995 miniseries instead; it’s much longer but also much better and more faithful to the book. You can find more of my thoughts on Pride and Prejudice here.

Feel free to share some of your own reading suggestions below.

1876 by Gore Vidal Wednesday, Sep 5 2012 

Before beginning my discussion of 1876, I very strongly recommend that you read Burr—also by Gore Vidal—before you read this novel. Not only is Burr a great read, but it also features the same protagonist, Charles Schuyler. Many of the references made in 1876 will make much more sense if you have already read Burr. With that suggestion out of the way, here’s my review.

1876 is the journal of Charles Schuyler, a renowned writer returning to his native United States after living in Europe for over thirty years. Accompanying him on the journey is his beautiful daughter Emma, a widowed European princess.  As Schuyler takes in the many changes in his hometown of New York and the U.S. at large, he is determined to secure a new marriage for his daughter and rebuild at least some of the fortune he lost in the Panic of 1873. While Emma charms American high society, Schuyler keeps busy as a newspaper writer, covering American politics, the Centennial Exposition celebrating the country’s 100th year, and his impressions of America as a returning expatriate. Soon, he finds himself caught up in the political intrigue and corruption of the era, culminating in one of the most controversial presidential elections in U.S. history. As usual, Gore Vidal places his fictional central characters right alongside real-life figures, including Mrs. William Astor, President Ulysses S. Grant, Mark Twain, rival Republican senators Roscoe Conkling and James G. Blaine,  Democratic presidential nominee Samuel J. Tilden, and more. (Be prepared for an irreverent perspective on some of these historical figures, especially Grant and Twain.)

For history buffs and political enthusiasts, this is an especially great novel to read during an election year. It brilliantly details the chaos of the 1876 presidential race and the corrupt practices that were the norm for both major parties, from the stealing of public funds to civil service patronage to the buying of elected office. One thing that really stands out in 1876 is just how much has changed in the political process since that time. Unlike today, political parties’ conventions were about selecting a presidential nominee, not just officially nominating one, so the events were often extremely unpredictable and competitive. Campaigns were often just as vicious, if not more so, and shocking rumors about the candidates were common (this novel includes one about Republican nominee Rutherford B. Hayes having once shot his own mother). And even the contested 2000 presidential election cannot compare to the one in 1876, which involved questionable returns in numerous states and went unresolved for months. You may find yourself wondering if today’s political scene is as bad as you thought.

For less politically minded readers, 1876 still offers plenty of great material. I always enjoy reading about historical New York City, and it is especially amusing to think that Fifth Avenue was once a newly stylish place to live and that building a mansion near Central Park was considered a strange idea. The most fun, though, comes from the viciously witty commentary on America’s 19th century high society, especially in New York. Through the narration of Charles Schuyler, Vidal not so gently mocks the conventions and pretensions of the era and the rivalry between the “old money” and the “nouveau riche.” I often found myself laughing at Schuyler’s thoughts about the wealthy families and their friends, especially Mrs. William Astor and her overly devoted, social climbing companion Ward McAllister.

Reading 1876 feels a lot like reading delicious political and societal gossip from another era, all while remaining historically accurate and informative. I hope you will enjoy it as much as I did.

Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie Sunday, Aug 12 2012 

Saleem Sinai is born at a very exciting time—the stroke of midnight on August 15, 1947, to be exact, the very moment that India becomes an independent nation after decades of British rule. As he grows up, Saleem finds out that being born at such an important and historic moment has its consequences. From birth to adulthood, his hopes, dreams, personal tragedies, and even physical health are linked to and reflected in national events, to the point that Saleem even feels personally responsible for much of India’s postcolonial history. As if that were not enough, he also learns that he has telepathic powers that connect him with the other “midnight’s children,” all born within that first hour of Indian independence and possessing magical gifts of their own. Among those children is an enemy who will haunt Saleem for years to come.

Midnight’s Children was one of the more challenging ones I’ve read in a while; I was struck while reading it by just how little I knew about India. That limited knowledge, I am guessing, is why it took me some time to understand many of the symbols and themes present in the book. However, the challenge was well worth it. This is a fascinating and imaginative work, and not quite like anything else I have ever read.

The magical realism that Salman Rushdie is known for is perfect for a novel about 20th century India. As Saleem Sinai tells not only his own story, but also the stories of his parents and grandparents, the reader is presented with a picture of a nation that faces an ever-present conflict between its own ancient traditions and the British forces of modernization. Rushdie also perfectly presents two very common views of India (at least among Westerners): India as a magical land filled with mysteries and mysticism, and India as a real country facing real social, political, and military problems. The India in Midnight’s Children isn’t one or the other; it’s fully, definitely both.

What I consider to be best reflected in the magical realist elements and the saga of Saleem and his family is the fact that India is incredibly diverse and complex. For outsiders who don’t know much about it, it can be easy to forget that India is anything but a monolithic society. The country is one of the most populous in the world, and its citizens speak many different languages and practice numerous religions. That diversity and the challenges it presents shine through brilliantly in Midnight’s Children, and it is not very hard to see why Saleem often feels so overwhelmed by the moment of his birth and his inescapable connection to his homeland’s history.

While the history of postcolonial India is a huge part of the novel, it was hardly the only thing that stood out to me. I always enjoy novels that are fictional or fictionalized characters’ autobiographies, and what makes this one especially distinctive is that Saleem willingly acknowledges that he is not a reliable narrator. He is aware that he doesn’t always remember historical events and dates accurately, and he even admits that not every aspect of his story is completely true. As a result, Midnight’s Children becomes an interesting reflection on memory and whether how we remember things is more real to us than what actually happened. As with any fictional memoir I read, of course, I also find myself questioning how much we can believe the stories real people tell about their lives—not so much, in this case, because I think they’re being intentionally dishonest, but because they may be telling what they want to or can remember rather than what really happened.

Along with its strong thematic content, Midnight’s Children is an incredibly vibrant, gorgeously written novel filled with compelling characters and a few twists in the story that I did not expect. It is not one of the easier novels I’ve read in my life, but any effort I had to put into reading it was more than worth it, and I think it would be for anyone who chooses to read it.

Midnight’s Children covers so many decades and is so loaded with history, personalities, and details both realistic and magical that it almost feels impossible that a film adaptation is being released this year. I hope I get a chance to see this film and find out if it’s anywhere as captivating as its source material.

The American Heiress by Daisy Goodwin Tuesday, May 8 2012 

Downton Abbey fans who miss the hit period drama as much as I do will want to give Daisy Goodwin’s The American Heiress a try. This novel will at least partially fill the void until the Crawleys and their servants return in late 2012 or early 2013 (depending on which side of the Atlantic you reside).  A review blurb on the front cover of my paperback edition said as much, so needless to say, I was intrigued right away.

Originally published in the UK as My Last Duchess, The American Heiress takes place in the 1890s and tells the story of Cora Cash, heiress to a vast flour fortune. Cora is a beautiful, charming young woman who is the belle of New York and Newport, and she is widely believed to be the richest girl in America. However, Cora’s domineering mother wants a title for her daughter, and such a thing cannot be found in the United States, even for the wealthiest people. So, Cora travels to England to join the growing number of American heiresses seeking husbands among Britain’s titled aristocracy. Early on in her stay in England, Cora meets the handsome, mysterious Ivo Maltravers, Duke of Wareham. The two are soon engaged and married in a lavish New York wedding.

Of course, Cora’s marriage to Ivo is no fairy tale. Cora finds her new husband mercurial and difficult to understand, and it is hard not to wonder if he loves Cora or just her money. To make matters worse, Cora is irritated by her new mother-in-law and overwhelmed by the traditions and rules of England’s centuries-old aristocracy, where the servants can be as snooty as their employers. As more secrets and traps emerge, Cora often feels lonely and confused, sometimes even longing to return to America. If she is ever to be happy in her new life, she must become stronger than the shallow young woman she was when she first arrived in England.

The American Heiress is not a great literary work that offers in-depth analysis of the class systems of the late 19th century. However, it is a very entertaining novel, and I think it might offer a better understanding of women like the Countess of Grantham on Downton Abbey (whose name, incidentally, is also Cora) and what they went through early on in their marriages to British dukes and earls. As any good historical fiction book should be, it is full of vivid detail of the clothes, houses, and social lives of those lucky enough to be rich in the 1890s. I loved reading about the incredible gowns the women wore and the lavishness of the Newport parties. Those details alone make the book a worthwhile read if you’re just looking for something fun. I can only imagine how magnificent a film adaptation of this book would look.

The characters, though not particularly multidimensional, are well drawn and interesting enough to keep readers’ attention. While I would have liked to see some more significant development in Cora herself, I found her to be likable and was rooting for her as life in England got more and more frustrating. The most compelling character, I thought, was Cora’s African-American maid, Bertha Jackson, who faces challenges that neither Cora nor most of the other characters can truly understand. Bertha’s subplot is a bit sloppy at times, but Goodwin does a good job of conveying how isolated Bertha often feels; it’s clear that even Cora, who feels like a shut-out foreigner through much of the book, cannot fully grasp what life must be like for her maid. As for the Duke, Cora’s new husband, he is an intriguing but often irritating figure. While I pitied him for the difficulties he had faced in his life, I was also constantly wary of him and sometimes even wishing ill on him. I think Goodwin may have been trying to channel some of the romantic or Byronic heroes of British literature when she wrote this character, but Ivo is no Mr. Rochester, and he’s certainly no Mr. Darcy. Nevertheless, he is a very suitable central male character for a novel like this one.

I believe this book will prove a fun, escapist read for historical fiction fans. It takes place earlier than Downton Abbey and doesn’t have nearly as many characters, but anyone who enjoys the show’s beautiful sets and costumes and its captivating drama will find much of the same to appreciate in The American Heiress. Don’t be surprised if, like me, you start casting that hypothetical movie adaptation in your mind before you finish reading it.

Julian by Gore Vidal Sunday, Apr 1 2012 

I love historical fiction, and in my opinion, Gore Vidal is a master of the genre. Having read Burr and Lincoln, which are both excellent, I decided to check out a Vidal novel that explores something outside American history. That brought me to Julian, his 1964 novel about the Roman Emperor Flavius Claudius Julianus Augustus, often known as Julian the Apostate.

Twenty years after Julian’s death, Libanius and Priscus, two philosophers who had been Julian’s confidantes, have decided to attempt to have Julian’s memoir published. Once the process of doing so is agreed upon, the novel consists primarily of the manuscript of the memoir, along with the two philosophers’ marginal notes regarding their own memories of the events in Julian’s narrative—and often providing a more truthful, detailed account of what actually happened. Julian’s memoir details his early life and education, his ascent to becoming Caesar in the West, and eventually, his time as emperor. Much of the focus is on his transition from a student-prince only interested in philosophy to an ambitious military leader. Most prominent, though, is Julian’s contempt for Christianity and his interest in Mithraism and the ancient Roman gods, culminating in his efforts as emperor to restore the old Roman religion and eliminate the influence of Christianity altogether—efforts that would lead to his assassination in 363.

As I’ve noticed with the other Gore Vidal novels I’ve read, Julian has a brilliantly crafted structure that presents some worthwhile ideas. The comments on Julian’s memoir, especially from Priscus, frequently mention details that Julian chose not to include, either to make himself look more impressive to future generations or to avoid thinking about unpleasant memories. The notes between Priscus and Libanius throughout the memoir also present a more realistic perspective on some of the people Julian trusted and admired most. By writing the novel in this fashion, rather than simply as a fictional memoir, Vidal demonstrates that even a person’s own words cannot tell their entire story. There will almost always be unflattering details about their lives that they decide—consciously or unconsciously—not to discuss, and it will be up to other people to fill in those blanks. The structure of the novel also suggests that other people can often see the truth about our lives better than we can ourselves, especially when it comes to our closest friends. This is most obvious in Julian regarding the philosopher Maximus, whom Julian depends on for years for spiritual guidance and admires greatly. Priscus, on the other hand, can see that Maximus is more showmanship than spirituality, and that everything he says and does is carefully calculated to keep Julian’s favor.

The religious conflict of the era proves to be the most interesting aspect of the novel. Unsurprisingly from an author like Gore Vidal, the critique of Christianity is quite harsh, and the religion is presented as a serious detriment to tolerance and intellectual endeavors in the Roman Empire. However, it also seems to me that Vidal views Julian’s attempts to revive the “old gods” with some skepticism as well, especially regarding animal sacrifices and their use as some sort of indicator of future events. Though the novel is not exactly objective about this conflict, I did learn a lot about early Christianity and other practices of the era from it. I always appreciate an entertaining novel that also teaches me something and encourages me to learn more about a subject.

It is clear that Gore Vidal did meticulous research for this book, and Julian is a very accurate depiction of Julian the Apostate and the time in which he lived. It has a lot of the same qualities that I enjoyed so much about Burr and Lincoln, but also gave me the opportunity to find out more about a time in history about which I do not know very much. This is historical fiction at its very best, and I definitely recommend it to any fan of the genre.

The Angel of Darkness by Caleb Carr Thursday, Oct 27 2011 

In this sequel to The Alienist, controversial psychiatrist Dr. Laszlo Kreizler and his eclectic team of investigators find themselves once again at the center of a complicated, disturbing case. The story begins when a Spanish diplomat’s baby daughter is kidnapped. The child’s mother approaches former police department secretary Sara Howard, now a private investigator, for help after her husband refuses to do anything to get their child back. Although tensions between the U.S. and Spain are blamed at first, the team soon learns that the kidnapper is Libby Hatch, a nurse with a troubling track record of babies dying under her care. As Dr. Kreizler and the others delve further into Libby’s life, both past and present, they find out they are up against a manipulative woman who has caused more destruction than they could have imagined.

While I’d say that The Angel of Darkness is just as good as The Alienist, this book has a very different feel to it, despite having many of the same characters. While The Alienist was more of a mystery, with the investigators trying both to identify and to stop the killer, The Angel of Darkness is more of a thriller. The reader finds out in the first chapter who the main villain is and what has become of her, and the rest of the novel reveals what is so awful about Libby Hatch, and why the team’s experience with her still haunts them. The other big difference is the novel’s narrator. The Alienist is told from the perspective of educated, well-to-do journalist John Moore, but The Angel of Darkness is narrated by Stevie Taggert, a former petty thief who began working for Dr. Kreizler after Kreizler saved him from a brutal life in prison. Stevie tells the story with a less refined tone, and he presents what is practically an insider’s perspective on the New York criminal underworld, having spent his childhood as a part of it. As a result, the dangers of dealing with the gangs and violence of that world felt much closer and much more real in The Angel of Darkness. While Carr certainly did not hold back from describing them in The Alienist, there was always a certain distance from all of it when an outsider was telling the story.

I think the most notable thing about The Angel of Darkness, though, is Libby Hatch herself, who is a surprisingly complicated villain for a thriller.  As vicious and deceitful as Libby can be, there is something desperate and tragic about her as well. There are so many sides to her personality—some real, some perhaps entirely fabricated—that she is not only a fascinating psychological study for Dr. Kreizler, but a challenge for the investigators that their target in The Alienist never presented to the same degree. I found myself wondering about Libby Hatch whether she could have turned out differently in a society that had different expectations of women, and I even came close to pitying her a few times, despite her shocking crimes—but Carr keeps Libby sneaky and evil enough to stop the reader from feeling much sympathy for her.

Like The Alienist, The Angel of Darkness presents appealing characters (though I thought Sara Howard was still a little too close to being a mere caricature of a late 19th century feminist), and an exciting, suspenseful story. Both books offer an interesting peek into a very different era of New York City history, which has been, for me, one of the most enjoyable parts of reading them. Caleb Carr has not written a book about Laszlo Kreizler and his associates since The Angel of Darkness in 1997, but I hope perhaps he will write at least one more someday. I would certainly welcome such a book, and I’m sure many other mystery and thriller fans would as well.

The Alienist by Caleb Carr Friday, Aug 5 2011 

Are you a history geek? Do you know and love New York City? Do you always enjoy a good mystery?

If you answered yes to any or all of the above, then The Alienist is a novel you must read.

Set in 1896 New York, during Theodore Roosevelt’s tenure as the city’s Police Commissioner, The Alienist follows the search for a serial killer in the city’s corrupt, dangerous underworld. Joining Roosevelt in the investigation are crime reporter John Moore, ahead-of-their-time detectives Lucius and Marcus Isaacson, secretary and first female NYPD employee Sara Howard, former mental patients Stevie Taggert and Cyrus, and title character Laszlo Kreizler, a brilliant and controversial psychiatrist. As author Caleb Carr explains, psychiatrists were known as alienists before the 20th century because of the belief that the mentally ill were “alienated not only from society but from their own true natures.”

Caleb Carr does an excellent job creating a portrait of late 19th century New York City. It is fascinating to read of a New York without many of the iconic buildings and institutions that are such a huge part of our image of the city today. Carr also doesn’t shy away from the violence and depravity that characterized life for so many New Yorkers in that era; in the world he recreates, it isn’t hard to believe that the serial killer at the center of this novel could elude capture for so long. The Alienist is especially enjoyable for anyone with strong knowledge of New York and its history; you will find yourself engrossed in where the characters end up on their search, and you might even figure out a thing or two before it is revealed.

Though this particular story is fictional, it’s also interesting to read about a criminal investigation in a time when scientific evidence and criminal psychology were considered both innovative and outrageous. It offers some insights into how the investigative procedures we see today on TV shows like Law & Order and CSI came into being. Kreizler’s insights into the criminal mind are especially readable and much deeper than one would usually expect in a book that is essentially a thriller.

While this is primarily a plot-driven novel without great character depth, Laszlo Kreizler is a very compelling figure, and the novel is at its best when he’s involved. Though he could have easily been written as the typical brooding, mysterious, haunted-by-the-past male character, Carr successfully balances these qualities with intelligence and kind-heartedness. Kreizler’s scientific fascination with the case, and with the human mind in general, is equaled by a genuine concern for potential victims and the many other people he has helped in his work. He is the kind of character that leads the reader to musing who would play him in a film adaptation (personally, I think a younger Alan Rickman type would be perfect).

I only have two significant criticisms of The Alienist. One of them is the character of Sara Howard. While I admired her determination to be an independent woman and to hold her own in a field usually reserved to men at the time, I thought sometimes she was trying too hard to be defiant and to be “one of the boys,” which made her seem awkward and insecure rather than strong. Since the case involves child prostitutes and homosexuality, I found the characters’ seemingly liberal views on the latter unrealistic for the time period. While their compassion for the slain boys from the “disorderly houses” certainly makes sense, most of these characters, were this a real case, probably still would have expressed some repulsion at the prevalence of homosexuality in Manhattan’s seedier institutions.

While it’s not exactly a criticism, and it isn’t something that bothered me, it’s also worth noting that this novel can get very violent and gruesome, so I don’t recommend it for anyone who can’t handle that kind of thing.

These quibbles aside, The Alienist is a first-rate thriller that will especially intrigue anyone interested in New York City history or criminal psychology. I look forward to reading its follow-up, The Angel of Darkness, and will be sure to review that here as well.