Ever since I read Edward Rutherfurd’s New York: The Novel a couple years ago, I’ve been slowly stockpiling Rutherfurd’s other works, anticipating an opportunity with oodles of time to devote to his sweeping historical narratives. Over my Christmas break from grad school, I finally picked up London, which I opted for over Sarum simply because my copy of Sarum is a gigantic brick of a hardcover that I did not want to carry around.
Rutherfurd’s structure and style is just the same as I’d experienced; he follows the lineage of several families through hundreds of years, each chapter acting as a portal into any specific moment in history. London spans from the early Roman days of Julius Caesar through the late twentieth century, and we see a city grow from humble beginnings to a bustling metropolis with an incredibly thick and colorful history.
I loved New York because I felt such a strong sense of place. Beyond the fact that I live in New York and thus was immediately familiar with any location in the story, at any given moment you could see how characters were simultaneously shaping their world and being defined by the world around them. It was a delicate balance of character and setting that worked so well.
London did not work for me in the same way. I felt the setting was far less important, and I didn’t feel the same strong sense of place; it was often hard to remember we were in London. The story was more focused on the characters as independent of their setting, which was disappointing—I wanted to learn more about the evolution of London (a city of which I am very familiar having studied abroad there), and I felt that aspect was lacking. Though the novel does carry you through some of the most important moments in the city’s development, the city itself just seemed like background. London covers such a greater span of time than New York—2,000 years as opposed to a mere 400—which may have had something to do with it; transitions between chapters often jumped so far in time that you lost your sense of place. It felt much more a collection of separate stories than one continuous, flowing narrative. It also made it very difficult to follow the characters and their ancestries as time passed. In New York, I was constantly aware of family histories as we jumped chapter to chapter, but here I just completely lost track (though there is a helpful family tree printed at the beginning of the book). Overall, I felt disconnected from the city itself, as if these characters could have existed anywhere and behaved much the same way.
It’s difficult to get into much more detail about this book, just because it contains so much. My favorite parts to read about a place’s history are always about its earliest days—what life was like when such a huge city was just a tiny settlement and how the people living there survived day to day. It’s exciting to imagine a well-known place as it once was, a setting that would be completely unrecognizable. London does provide this fictionalized history of its namesake, and it’s a style that Rutherfurd is very good at writing. I won’t hop into another one of his for a while (this one took me FOREVER to finish), but I won’t write him off because of this one, either. Many Goodreads members seem to have the same thoughts I do, encouraging me to give Sarum and Russka both a try.