Book Review: City of Promise

Written by Mark Peikert on . Posted in Arts & Film, Books.


When was the last time your heart started pounding while you read a novel? Or learned something you didn’t know about Manhattan’s history? If you can’t remember, then run, do not 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—which was 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.

That combination of page-turning guilty pleasure and historical lesson is a highly successful one. Never does Swerling over-inundate her reader with historical facts and footnotes; nor does she allow the story’s tawdry leanings 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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