I’ve got a sweet spot for sprawling historical fiction, novels that teach me about a historical period while engaging me in the personal dramas of the characters. I love it when those personal stories overlap and tangle with the broader cultural and political shifts of history, the way they do in novels like Middlesex and The Glass Palace and Someone Knows My Name (all awesome). I also have a sweet spot for novels that bring the magical to the real. These two elements don’t often overlap, but they do, to great results in my most recent re-read: Forever by Pete Hamill.
At over six-hundred pages, Forever is not a quick read, but it has much to teach about the history of New York over the past three centuries, and it manages to do so in a completely believable way through the eyes of a single character. Three hundred years, one character: you can see where the magic comes in. As novel winds through the changing streets of New York, the reader edges towards the climatic moment she feels and sees coming, a moment lodged in our collective consciousness, a moment that will always be linked to the city of New York: September 11th. The tension of that approaching date mirrors the tension of the protagonist’s multiple plotlines moving to a conclusion that both surprised and satisfied.
I love that in Forever I get to see George Washington ride his horse through the hills of New York, and that I get to visit prisons and tunnels and speakeasies and brothels over the decades. It’s clear that Hamill is a newspaperman, that he’s a fan of history and reporting. That attention to detail allows the reader not just to be told the history of New York, but to live it in with all its stink and all its shine. Forever is a delicious romp, one I enjoyed so much the first time through that I decided to take it for another spin.
I have two weeks of winter break now, and one of the things I most look forward to this time, and any time, I have extra time is more hours curled up in my cabin with great books. I’ve accumulated quite a stack to To Reads, but I also think I’ll probably spend some time browsing my local bookstore, as I always like to go in without knowing what I’ll come out with. It makes the book a bit of an adventure before it even starts. I’ll let you know what I find.