A family saga follows the fortunes of a clan of Scots merchants as they morph into pillars of New York society.
The waxing and waning of the old Yankee aristocracy has always provided Auchincloss (The Scarlet Letters, 2003, etc.) with a rich theme for endless variations. Here, he shows himself once again the master of his craft in sketching out the family tree of David Carnochan, who, in 1829, comes ashore at Manhattan Island. A canny farmboy with a Scottish nose for business and a Presbyterian taste for brimstone, the first of the New York Carnochans does a fair trade in textiles and amasses a fortune and nine children by the time of the Civil War (which he—like most New Yorkers—resents for its dampening of trade). The Carnochans appear mildly schizophrenic in the author’s telling: a gray corps of hardhearted shopkeepers regularly punctuated by mad, parti-colored dreamers like David’s son Andrew (an ardent abolitionist who becomes a Union officer and fell in battle) or his great-granddaughter Estelle (who runs off to Italy with her lover and dies languorously of tuberculosis). More typical are the ones who stay at home and do their duty, like Bruce (a pompous ass who manages to become a human being by having his heart broken and marrying on the rebound) or Gordon (whose fatal sense of duty makes him a ready doormat for every overbearing clod in town). There are also (farther down the family) the inevitable wastrels and ne’er-do-wells (like the spoiled philanderer Jaime) who are the family’s public shame and secret pride. And the family moves with the times more than you might expect, shedding its dour Calvinism a bit more with each generation, even intermarrying with Jews and other exotic New York fauna.
A rich chronicle, neither pious nor snide, that succeeds in humanizing a rare and much-maligned species of Americans for those who don’t come across them very much.