As I approached the half-way mark of this novel I was already drafting my review… This book is magical. It would say. This is one of the best novels I’ve read all year. And while this is all true, I will be upfront and qualify these statements and say that the last half drags in a way that the first 200 pages or so don’t.
But let’s talk about what’s good in this book: Doctorow does an incredible job of blending the fictional and factual, to the point where, as a reader, you start to begin to believe that everything you are reading is true (it’s not). There’s just something about the writing style, from the way people are described to the bouncing around geographically (first in New York and then across the Eastern seaboard) that reels you in and makes the fictional elements seem plausible, even as pseudo-magic and extraordinary coincidences crop up left and right. This serves a dual purpose; it draws you not only into the plot of the novel itself, but also brings the time period alive in a way that I don’t think I’ve read before.
Something else I loved is that none of the fictional characters (with the exception of Coalhouse Walker, Jr and his love, Sarah), have proper names. Instead, they are Little Boy, Mother, Father, Little Girl, Tateh, etc. My personal favorite is “Mother’s Younger Brother” (often shortened to “Younger Brother”), since all the other characters are ‘named’ based on their relationship to the two young children. This highlights Younger Brother’s character in such a subtle and important way that it blew my mind! Then there’s the fact that Coalhouse Walker, Jr. has a name… and that’s why people so often Google ‘was Coalhouse a real person?’: you think he’s more realistic than J.P. Morgan or Henry Ford.
Then there’s the not so great parts of the book. As I mentioned, the book drags in the last bit, which was odd because that’s when the action really picks up (quickly and in a somewhat unexpected fashion). I think for me the issue was that while the plot was taking off some of the humor and more delicate prose was lost along the way, so the magic kind of bled into something more predictable than the first several chapters would have you expecting.
All the same, I devoured this book from cover to cover, and was horribly disappointed by the ending… or rather, the fact that it ended.
AND WHAT ABOUT THE MOVIE? There’s actually both a movie and a musical based on this book. I’ll start with the movie: It’s from 1981, and was nominated for a whopping 8 Oscars. That being said… it wasn’t for me. I haven’t seen that whole thing, but what it boiled down to for me was that, in order to tell a compelling story on the screen, the movie-makers scaled down on the number of people/stories considerably. While this might make a compelling movie, I was too caught up in the “But in the book…” mentality to get any enjoyment from the slimmed down version. I won’t deny that there is probably no way to truly make a movie of this book that makes any kind of sense, since characters would walk in and out of the story with such abandon. Still, I wasn’t very happy with the parts of the movie I did watch. That being said, visually the movie was beautiful, and the score was pretty, and the acting was great. Now onto the musical: It’s from 1998 was last on Broadway as recently as 2009. Now, I haven’t been able to watch a full recording of the musical, but I’ve seen snippets of some student productions and listened to a few of the songs from the original cast album. I don’t think it’s perfect, but as a musical theater lover (i.e. from an admittedly biased perspective), it seems like it captures the tone and overall breadth better than the movie I watched.