Wednesday 17 November 2021

Neo-Victorian Voices: The Great Mistake, Jonathan Lee (2021)

Andrew Haswell Green (1821-1903) is the greatest New Yorker you might never have heard of. Often referred to as the “Father of Greater New York,” this self-made city planner and lawyer was instrumental in the creation of landmarks such as Central Park, the New York Public Library, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Bronx Zoo, and the American Museum of Natural History. 

In his 2021 novel, The Great Mistake, Jonathan Lee brings us into Green’s inner world, painting a picture of a brilliant but isolated man, whose untimely murder (no spoilers here—this opens the book!) was as senseless as the time period’s suppression of his same sex desire.

Jumping around in time, we become acquainted with Green as a dignified celebrity in the bustling metropolis and as a farm boy desperate for his own father’s love. He is the shopkeeper’s apprentice, working long hours to survive, the businessman shocked by, but implicated in, the ill treatment of workers in Trinidad, and the young man enamored of his friend Samuel J. Tilden, who was born with much greater privileges. 

The novel is literary and character-driven, but two questions pull us through the pages. One: who killed Green? And two: what was the great mistake of the title? The first of these is answered clearly; the second remains a subject of debate. Was Green’s mistake uniting Manhattan and Brooklyn? Does the phrase instead refer to his murder? Or did he misstep in his personal life, perhaps by prioritizing his professional aspirations?

Lee writes good prose and there are some chapters and moments here where good becomes great. Other more philosophical passages, such as the political debate set against the backdrop of Brooklyn Bridge, are less successful.

Still, I’d recommend The Great Mistake to lovers of quieter historical fiction, to those with an interest in queer identities in the nineteenth century, and to anyone with a fondness for New York City. 

Which twenty-first-century written, nineteenth-century set, novel would you like me to review next as part of my Neo-Victorian Voices series? Let me know—here, on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Have you read my novel, Bronte’s Mistress, yet? It’s available in hardcover, paperback, audiobook and e-book now. 

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