Book Review: City of Promise

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When was the last time your heart started pounding as you read a novel? Or learned something you didn't know about Manhattan's history? If you can't remember, run, don't walk, to purchase a copy of Beverly Swerling's compulsively readable City of Promise.

Set in the Manhattan of the 1870s and '80s, when elevated subways and apartment buildings were just beginning to crop up in areas still considered no-man's-lands-pretty much everything above 42nd Street-Swerling tracks the financial success of Joshua Turner, a one-legged Civil War veteran who has the crazy notion of stacking people in the sky like layers of a cake, and his wife Mollie, a shrewd and lovely young woman who was raised by her madam aunt in the city's most fashionable whorehouse.

Swerling has chosen her era carefully; over the course of the novel, Midtown begins to take shape, Thomas Edison publicly displays the light bulb, Boss Tweed is run out of office and a dozen small details of city living that we now take for granted our introduced-including Macys. The details are both small-women made their husbands move them uptown because the huge quantities of manure in the densely populated downtown areas made walking down the street ruinous for their gowns-and large, like the years-long building of the Brooklyn Bridge, but only unsurprising for the most dedicated of armchair New York City history buffs.

That combination of page-turning guilty pleasure and historical lesson is a highly successful one. Never does Swerling overinundate her reader with historical facts and footnotes, nor does she allow the story's tawdry leanings (Josh's construction crew are dwarves who hang out in a proto-speakeasy that reads like something out of Tod Browning's film Freaks) to ever burst forth into prose that's too purplish. Both something of a high-octane corporate thriller and a thorough recreation of a Manhattan that is not only long gone, but virtually unknown to its residents today, City of Promise is a book that is more than just a promise of entertainment. It's a guarantee.

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