Skip to main content

Review--Heyday, by Kurt Andersen

Heyday follows the story of four young Americans during the tumultuous years of 1848-9. The novel opens in Paris in February 1948, when the aristocratic Englishman Ben Knowles witnesses an uprising. Eventually, he escapes to the United States, where he quickly befriends Polly and Duff Lucking, and Timothy Skaggs. They’re each of them unique, quirky characters, and I enjoyed reading about them as they make a transcontinental voyage to California followed by a Frenchman in search of vengeance. It’s a journey that’s at once exciting and full of danger.

I had mixed feelings about Heyday. I’ve been reading reviews about the book on Amazon.com, and my grumblings about the novel are pretty much the same as theirs are. The four main characters become involved—accidentally or no—with nearly every moment of historical significance in 1848 and -9. However, despite all the change that surrounds them, Ben, Polly, Duff, and Skaggs don’t really seem to change that much themselves. I like to see characters grow and expand in a novel, not remain static. They also seemed like 21st-century people who just happened to drop in on the 1840s. Sometimes the dialogue and events didn’t ring true to me. And I thought that Ben and Polly’s relationship could have been fleshed out a bit.

Another complaint I have about the book is the fact that Andersen name-drops a lot. It seems that the four main characters run into every real person of significance of the period. I’m all for historical veracity, but not if it’s going to be superfluous. Along the way, for example, we meet Charles Darwin, Walt Whitman, Horace Greely, and hear from Brigham Young. But none of those characters plays significantly in the narrative. Rather, all the name dropping detracts from the story.

All that said, however, Andersen did a terrific amount of research, the kind you don’t nearly run into in novels of this caliber. The overarching theme of the book is that life is in the timing. It’s only coincidence that these four idiosyncratic characters live in this particular period and witness and do all that they do. It’s a completely fantastic historical backdrop and one that I enjoyed reading about.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Review: Forever Amber, by Kathleen Winsor

Pages: 972 Originally published: 1944 My edition: 2000 (Chicago Review Press) How I acquired my copy: Amazon.com, 2004

Forever Amber takes place in the 1660s, immediately follwing Charles II's ("the Merry Monarch") return of the Stuarts to the English throne. The book features Amber St. Claire, a young woman who starts out as a sixteen-year-old country girl, naieve to the workings of the world. She immediately meets Bruce Carlton, a dashing young Cavalier, with whom she has a passionate love affair in choppy intervals throughout the book. They have two children together, but Bruce won't marry her for the reason he tells his friend Lord Almsbury: that Amber just isn't the kind of woman one marries.

Upon following Bruce to London, he goes to Virginia, leaving her to fend for herself. What follows is a series of affairs and four marriages, with Bruce coming back from America now and then. Amber's marriages are imprudent: her first husband is a gambler, her second is…

Review: Jane Austen's Letters, ed. by Deirdre Le Faye

Pages: 667 Original date of publication: 2011 My copy: 2011 (Oxford University Press) Why I decided to read: How I acquired my copy: Amazon.com, April 2013
This is a compilation of many of Jane Austen’s letters, most of them sent to her sister Cassandra between 1796 and 1817, the year of her death. Although many of Austen’s letters were destroyed by her sister in order to preserve the family reputation, the collection contains over 160 letters in which Austen gives her sister details about her life in Chawton—as well as giving us a tantalizing glimpse of what was going through her mind as she was writing her novels (especially the novel that was to become Pride and Prejudice, First Impressions). There are other letters here, too, giving advice to her niece and professional correspondence to publishers—as well as a couple of letters that were written by Cassandra Austen after Jane’s death.
To the sisters, the letters acted in the way that phone calls do today; Austen’s news is all about pe…

Review: Midnight in Peking, by Paul French

Pages: 259 Original date of publication: 2013 My copy: 2013 (Penguin) Why I decided to read: How I acquired my copy: Phoenix bookstore, May 2013
In January 1937, the body of a young British girl, Pamela Werner, was found near Peking’s Fox Tower. Although two detectives, one British and the other Chinese, spent months on the case, the case was never solved completely, and the case was forgotten in the wake of the invasion of the Japanese. Frustrated, Pamela’s father, a former diplomat, tried to solve the crime. His investigation took him into the underbelly of Peking society and uncovered a secret that was worse than anything he could have imagined.
At first, I thought that this would be a pretty straightforward retelling of a true crime, but what Paul French (who spent seven years researching the story) reveals in this book is much more than that. Foreign society in Peking in the 1930s was stratified, with the British colonials at the top and the White Russian refugees at the bottom, but…