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Summary and book reviews of Metropolis by Elizabeth Gaffney

Metropolis

A Novel

by Elizabeth Gaffney

Metropolis
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Mar 2005, 480 pages
    Paperback:
    Feb 2006, 480 pages

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Book Summary

Captures the splendor and violence of New York in the years after the Civil War, as young immigrants climb out of urban chaos and into the American dream.

Elizabeth Gaffney’s magnificent, Dickensian Metropolis captures the splendor and violence of America’s greatest city in the years after the Civil War, as young immigrants climb out of urban chaos and into the American dream.

On a freezing night in the middle of winter, Gaffney’s nameless hero is suddenly awakened by a fire in P. T. Barnum’s stable, where he works and sleeps, and soon finds himself at the center of a citywide arson investigation.

Determined to clear his name and realize the dreams that inspired his hazardous voyage across the Atlantic, he will change his identity many times, find himself mixed up with one of the city’s toughest and most enterprising gangs, and fall in love with a smart, headstrong, and beautiful young woman. Buffeted by the forces of fate, hate, luck, and passion, our hero struggles to build a life–just to stay alive–in a country that at first held so much promise for him.

Epic in sweep, Metropolis follows our hero from his arrival in New York harbor through his experiences in Barnum’s circus, the criminal underground, and the building of the Brooklyn Bridge, and on to a life in Brooklyn that is at once unique and poignantly emblematic of the American experience. In a novel that is wonderfully written, rich in suspense, vivid historical detail, breathtakingly paced, Elizabeth Gaffney captures the wonder and magic of a rambunctious city in a time of change. Metropolis marks a superb fiction debut.

Chapter 1
1.
CASTLE GARDEN

"Hot corn, get your hot corn!"

Her voice cut through the clamor of Broadway but attracted no customers as she made her way south through the teeming crowd, bouncing her basket on her hip. When she reached the gates of the old fort known as Castle Garden, where the immigration center was, she flashed a smile at the guard, entered the premises and quickly sold her corn, several dozen ears, to the usual cast of hollow-cheeked immigrants. The stuff had been dried on the cob in the fall and had to be soaked two full days before boiling, but even so, it had tasted good to her, five years back, after the unrelenting porridge of the passage from Dublin. Here and there, ears that had been stripped clean lay discarded in the dirt, kicked up against the pillars, along with every other sort of garbage.

So she’d sold her corn, but it didn’t earn her much, just pennies a piece. She didn’t mind. Selling hot corn wasn’t why she’d come...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. The hero of Metropolis remains nameless for the first part of the book; later, he tries on different names, which he then rejects, each in turn. Why are names important, and why do you think Gaffney chose to complicate her main character's identity in this way?

  2. Beatrice O'Gamhna does not initially appear to be the nicest heroine when we first meet her; she is involved in pick-pocketing and kidnapping.  How did you feel about her character, as you read? What is her appeal?

  3. Although the main character is a man, the strongest characters in the book are arguably the women: Mother Dolan, Beanie, Fiona. The issues of ...
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Reviews

BookBrowse

In case you wonder, Gaffney tells me that the hero of her story, Frank Harris, is not intended to be a fictionalized version of the Irish author and editor, Frank Harris (1851-1931), author of "My Life & Loves". She chose the name simply because she liked it and it was a common name of the time.   (Reviewed by BookBrowse Review Team).

Full Review Members Only (331 words).

Media Reviews
The New York Times - Janet Maslin

The pace and density of Metropolis are rewarding yet stubbornly unpredictable. The book's vivid tableaus and high drama are offset by close study of how urban planning, construction projects and contagious illnesses actually work. All this moves circuitously but firmly toward a finale that validates all the sprawl and unexpectedness of what has come before.

Publishers Weekly

While it never attains the narrative urgency of Doctorow's evocations of 19th-century New York, the novel's well-researched historical background, enlivened by descriptions of the criminal underworld and the off-beat love story, should ensure wide interest.

Library Journal - Eleanor J. Bader

Though one wishes that the author had occasionally injected dates to clarify the passage of time, this remains an engaging and suspenseful work-and required reading for anyone interested in urban affairs or simply in need of a good, stick-to-the-ribs escape from today's sociopolitical realities. Highly recommended.

Kirkus Reviews

Gaffney's first outing isn't as wonderful as it might have been some of its action is quite redundant, the seams of her formidable research clearly show, and her Trollopian habit of inserting loquacious authorial commentary at odd moments often unsettles the tone. But the narrative line is strong, and the text is enlivened by ... brilliantly imagined characters... Luther alone is worth the price of admission, but there's much more to like in Gaffney's rip-roaring, agreeably ungainly, outrageously entertaining tale.

Booklist - Donna Seaman

*Starred Review* In spite of the sense that Gaffney is working her way down a historical checklist, her fascination with technical advances, street life, social reform, and odd real-life events infuses this big, busy, imaginative, atmospheric, and compulsively readable historical novel (and remarkably capable debut) with a tantalizing energy. And given its array of irresistibly colorful characters, gritty romance, and labyrinthine plot, Gaffney's tale of old New York is pure bliss.

Author Blurb Michael Chabon, author of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay
Gaffney has engineered a thrilling Brooklyn Bridge of a novel, at once old-fashioned and utterly modern, grand and charming, elegant and massive, imposing and delightful, carrying us in inimitable style across the rich, rank waters of New York City’s history.

Author Blurb Andrea Barrett, author of Ship Fever
Elizabeth Gaffney’s Metropolis is vibrant, richly detailed, and compellingly plotted. The territory of her late-nineteenth-century underworld resembles that of Herbert Asbury’s The Gangs of New York or Frederick Busch’s The Night Inspector–but the sensibility is all her own, and her characters are unforgettable.

Author Blurb Helen Schulman, author of P.S. and The Revisionist
Trust the excellent Elizabeth Gaffney-–in her debut novel, no less–to use the best of both history and her own considerable powers of creation to construct this compelling tale of a young immigrant’s journey through the chaotic underbelly of post—Civil War New York. The star of Gaffney’s dazzling show may be male, but the true heroes are the crafty, clever, and resilient female cast members who, with their own nineteenth-century brand of girl-gang feminism, help to reinvent the world.

Author Blurb Anna Deavere Smith
What an absorbing experience to visit Elizabeth Gaffney’s imagination while it shakes, shimmers, and sizzles with extraordinary storytelling against the backdrop of history.

Author Blurb David Grand, author of The Disappearing Body
A towering work of brilliant imagination, as exquisitely written as it is intricately constructed. Metropolis, with all its brawn and brains and heart, will no doubt find its way into the skyline of the greatest of the great New York City classics.

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Beyond the Book

Elizabeth Gaffney is an advisory editor of The Paris Review, teaches writing at New York University and has translated a number of German novels into English. Her short fiction has appeared in North American Review, Colorado Review, Brooklyn Review, Mississippi Review, The Reading Room, and Epiphany. Metropolis is her first novel. She is also the author and narrator of a 'City Reads' guide, The Brooklyn Bridge: From City To Metropolis (2004).

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