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Saturday, March 31, 2012

Roundup: Historical fiction

Watergate stretches fiction a bit too far, The Gods of Gotham exudes Manhattan fiction, The House I Loved opens a window on a fascinating era, and The Technologists collects calamities.

By Thomas Mallon; Pantheon, 448 pp., $26.95; *** out of four

The women of Watergate — first lady Pat Nixon, loyal secretary Rose Mary Woods and, most of all, Alice Longworth, the viper-tongued 88-year-old daughter of Teddy Roosevelt— steal the show in Thomas Mallon's surprisingly entertaining and warm-hearted Watergate. Mallon presents the story of the bungled burglary and cover-up that destroyed Richard Nixon's presidency through a variety of narrators. In this retelling, Nixon becomes a far more sympathetic, complex, far-sighted character than the moniker "Tricky Dick" would suggest. And wife Pat — who is patient, perceptive, exhausted — is the opposite of plastic. (Mallon gives her a secret lover, stretching fiction too far.) — Deirdre Donahue

The Gods ofGotham
By Lyndsay Faye; Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam, 414 pp., $25.95; *** out of four

If your concept of paradise is popping in a DVD of Gangs of New York while rereading Caleb Carr's The Alienist, then put Lyndsay Faye's The Gods of Gotham on your to-buy list. Set in 1845, it depicts the cultural cataclysm created in Manhattan by the Irish potato famine. At the center of the story stands Timothy Wilde, an American bartender who loses his life savings to fire. Forced by his politically savvy older brother to join the new police force, the just-minted copper ends up investigating why Irish immigrant children are being savagely murdered. Faye's language is appropriately florid, even flowery, dotted with slang and research. A treat for readers obsessed with Manhattan history. — Deirdre Donahue

The House I Loved
By Tatiana de Rosnay; St. Martin's Press, 222 pp., $25.99; ** out of four

The House I Loved sounds like it could slide right in to a 9 p.m. time slot on HGTV. But despite its homey title, the latest from Tatiana de Rosnay (the wonderful Sarah's Key) is anything but cozy. It's the rather dreary story of Rose Bazelet, determined to cling to the last brick when her house is set for demolition in Paris in the 1860s. The format — letters to her beloved, dead husband interspersed with first-person narrative — grates, as does a rather contrived "secret" that taunts the reader. As historical fiction, though, this old House does open a window onto a fascinating era: the tumultuous period when Emperor Napoleon III ordered up a new "modern" city, longtime residents be damned. — Jocelyn McClurg

The Technologists
By Matthew Pearl; Random House, 480 pp., $26; ** out of four

Readers will learn some interesting factoids about post-Civil War Boston, the founding of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and tensions between science and religion while reading The Technologists. Author Matthew Pearl also includes real-life figures such as Ellen Swallow, the first woman admitted to MIT. As a work of historical fiction, however, it's a long, hard slog dragged down by a cast of predictable characters and overwrought prose. The story opens in 1868 when a series of freak accidents imperils Boston: glass suddenly melts, burning eyeballs; compasses go wacky, causing ships to crash. Meanwhile, students at the fledging MIT battle contemptuous Harvard snobs. A group of plucky young engineers secretly investigates what is causing the calamities. — Deirdre Donahue

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