Brookland by Emily Barton.
When Brooklyn first came out (Feb. 2006), I was drawn to it immediately. The book had glowing, starred reviews in just about every journal. It was historic fiction set in the years immediately after the American Revolution (love the time period), and it had something to do with building a bridge between Brooklyn and NYC (I'm oddly and inexplicably obsessed with the Brooklyn Bridge, specifically its creation). Sounds like the perfect book for me, but for some reason, when it first came out, I couldn't get into it. So, thank you Shelfari. I put the title on the "Planning to Read" shelf, returned the physical book, and exactly 5 years later, got to read it.
The plot follows Prudence Winship, who owns and runs a popular gin distillery in Brooklyn during the 18th century. But while the book contains great details about distilling gin, this is really a novel about Prudence, her family, her obsession with building a bridge connecting Brooklyn to Manhattan, and her family's secrets.
This is a long, measured historical fiction novel. You cannot zip through it, but if you want a story which recreates a time and place in cinematic detail, this is the book for you. We begin with Prudence writing a letter to her daughter recounting her life history. Although this is not an epistolary novel their communication back and forth does frame the book; it is the reason Prudence final reveals all of her secrets.
The story begins during the waning years of the Revolutionary War, when Brooklyn (known as Brookland then) is filled with British soldiers. Prudence tells about her father's gin distillery, the birth of her sisters, and the curse she thinks she placed on her sister, Pearl. Pearl almost died after birth and was never able to speak. It is the relationship between these two sisters which causes much of the tension in the novel. It is psychological tension for 90% of the book however. The conflict does finally rise to the surface in a highly dramatic scene.
Prudence is taught her father's trade and runs the distillery, which means the novel contains a lot of information about how a woman in the 18th Century would run a major business. But it is her obsession with building the bridge which consumes her and takes up the last half of the novel. It almost ruins her and her husband.
Brookland is a somber book, where the sense of place (Brooklyn in the 18th Century) is the largest appeal factor. We get the domestic and business details of how life actually was for people in that place and time. While this again slows the pace down, it is also fascinating. The plot may be stagnant for 20 pages, but unique and interesting details keep you going.
Imagine a time when Brooklyn, New York was consider a rural outpost. Also the details about business and politics in a brand new country were great.
This is also a book for people interested in the making of gin. The process is described in great detail by Prudence as she goes through her year long training. Women's issues (specifically their place and options in 18th Century America), family secrets, and bridge building are also discussed at length.
Brookland is an intimate portrayal of a successful but troubled family during an intriguing time period.
Three Words That Describe This Book: intimate, historical fiction, strong women
Readalikes: I kept thinking of Pete Hamill's historical fiction/magical realism tale of the history of NYC, Forever as I read this novel. Both books recreate their similar place well. For more details see this report on when I read Forever. Metropolis by Elizabeth Gaffney is also a well reviewed, historical fiction about old New York. This time we are in the post-Civil War years. Like Brookland, Metropolis is a sprawling epic. The final epic, historical fiction about New York which I would highly suggest is Edward Rutherfurd's New York.
Readers who enjoyed the combination of historical fiction with the strong women who are sisters should also try Shanghai Girls by Lisa See and The Other Boleyn Girl by Phillippa Gregory.
People who want more on the history of Brooklyn, try: The Battle of Brooklyn, 1776 by John Gallagher and Song of Brooklyn: An Oral History of America's Favorite Borough by Marc Eliot.
Finally, people who want the real story of the bridge that finally made it across the East River need to read David McCullough's The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge and watch the Ken Burns' documentary based on McCullough's book, Brooklyn Bridge.