In Swerling’s fourth Old New York novel (City of Glory, 2007, etc.), the Devreys and the Turners forge new alliances as their city and their rivalry evolve.
It’s 1833 and Samuel Devrey has made an advantageous marriage with beautiful heiress Carolina Randolf. But his heart belongs to Mei-Hua, whom he married three years earlier in a Chinese ceremony not recognized under New York law. Samuel bought Mei-Hua as a toddler from her father, a river pirate in Canton, and had her brought up in New York as a Chinese lady, complete with musical training and, most important to Sam, bound feet. Carolina disgusts him, mainly because of her intact feet. When he’s not in Mei-Hua’s bower in China Village on Cherry Street, where wily nursemaid Ah Chee guards her, Sam plots to regain control of Devrey Shipping (lost by his profligate father Lansing) by building the world’s fastest clipper ship and wresting the China trade, including opium, from John Jacob Astor. Meanwhile, surgeon Nick Turner proves himself ahead of the times by performing painless operations using ether and advocating that medical staff wash their hands. Appalled by the squalid conditions at Bellevue Hospital, Nick battles its corrupt administration to secure proper care for patients, aided by his saintly cousin Manon, a nurse. To prevent Sam from gaining control of Carolina’s inheritance, her father Wilbur alters his estate plan; after he dies, the ruined Sam retreats to Cherry Street and succumbs to opium addiction. Carolina sets up housekeeping with secret soul mate Nick, takes over Devrey Shipping and realizes Sam’s dreams with the speedy and profitable clipper Hell Witch. A gangster usurps Sam’s power in China Village, and Mei Lin, his daughter with Mei-Hua, must make a terrible choice to protect her mother. Avoiding a previous penchant for plot-slowing chunks of exposition, Swerling skillfully interweaves background information about the territorial and socioeconomic transformation of Gotham’s landscape.
Sure to fascinate even readers who don’t know “up-the-town” from “down-the-town.”