I took up this book with a sense of anticipation that was--almost--entirely rewarded. Set in New York--then a small city at the tip on the island of Manhattan--in 1746, its protagonist, Richard Smith, is a well-mannered and cosmopolitan young man. Versed in languages that extend to Turkish, the London stage, and conjuring tricks, he arrives bearing a letter of credit in excess of a thousand pounds charged on one of the infant City's largest financial concerns, an amount that, if honored, is so huge that it will exhaust its cash reserves.
If honored. Much of the plot concerns the mystery--which our hero cultivates--as to his origins and intentions and New York's consequent suspicions of his legitimacy. As the City awaits confirmation of the validity of the debt by the next ship from London, in a few months, Smith finds himself embroiled in a series of adventures and misadventures that will not be entirely unfamiliar to readers of Tom Jones. Or anyone who's just seen the movie. Smith pursues a romantic interest in a well-born but difficult young woman, but consummates one with another man's wife, with predictable results. In another episode he is saved at the last minute from certain death in a midnight sprint across the City's rooftops. And speaking of last-minute escapes, he is twice spared the hangman's noose.
Many reviewers refer to a startling plot twist. While there is an entirely unexpected fact dropped two-thirds of the way through, once it is revealed, you can see the "twist" coming from way up the road.
If I seem dismissive of the plot--and I'm not, to be clear; Spufford acknowledges his debt to the eighteenth-century novel-- my admiration for the setting is unbounded. Spufford's mastery of the detail of life in eighteenth-century New York is astonishing, and his learning is lightly worn. What he communicates most clearly is just how small, and how isolated, this largest of American cities was only thirty years before the revolution. It was a town huddled on the very edge of a hostile continent, separated from the imperial capital by three thousand miles of seawater. It was a scary place to be, and Spufford shows us that. Equally compelling is the sense of the chaotic and ad lib nature of political and commercial life--a Governor hanging on by his fingernails, business conducted in the currencies of the dozen other colonies, other countries, or just bartered goods. And some of the details are truly startling--just what "due process" meant three hundred years ago, for example, or the perils of a same-sex interracial relationship.
Though I didn't think the book quite lived up to the hype, it is nevertheless richly rewarding and not to be missed.