Let’s play a little round of New York City trivia. Did you know that there used to be elevated trains running along Bowery and 6th Avenue? Or that SoHo, currently an expensive area filled with shops and trendy restaurants, used to be one of Manhattan’s red light districts? Oh, or that there was a giant water reservoir where the New York Public Library currently stands?
These are all things I first discovered through fictional stories set in New York of the past. Despite having lived here for years, I’m not immune to the city’s (unique) charm, which seems to naturally encourage imagining how it appeared in bygone eras. Considering the city’s popularity—both in reality and in media of all forms—I know I’m not alone.
Luckily, there’s a whole slate of historical fiction set in New York which helps my fascination and imagination run wild. For anyone who shares a love for the city, and has an interest in getting a little dose of its history, here’s a list of books to get started.
Set in the city during the nineteenth century, THE PARTING GLASS is the perfect upstairs/downstairs story, mixed with a little romance and mystery. Mary, a lady maid obsessed with her wealthy socialite mistress, Charlotte, has a secret past. Unbeknownst to Charlotte, Mary is actually Maire, an Irish exile, who spends her nights off with prostitutes and members of a secret society. But Charlotte also has a secret, one that causes both women’s lives to unravel. This deeply irresistible binge read will give you a look at both the high society and the underbelly of New York in the 1800s.
With a cast of characters that includes sailors, gangsters, and bankers, and with a plot involving a disappearing father and women working jobs typically reserved for men during World War II, MANHATTAN BEACH is an impressive feat of truly entrancing fiction. Jennifer Egan is able to take readers into the time period, and vividly depict a moment in history that impacted the world, not just the characters’ lives. It also features the Brooklyn Navy Yard, which is now a place where you can take pottery classes and drink wine grown on a roof. So, there’s that.
If you ever get the chance to go to the Coney Island Mermaid Parade, please, take my advice and go. It’s a spectacular show (as long as you get there early enough to get a spot with a good view) of all that has made Coney Island a place of unique character and escape. But for anyone who doesn’t make the trip out there, or anyone who simply loves Coney Island (me!), there’s THE MUSEUM OF EXTRAORDINARY THINGS by Alice Hoffman. The main character, Coralie, works at her father’s Coney Island freak show, and then meets and falls in love with a photographer who captures the famous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. It’s romance, turn-of-the-century New York, Coney Island freak shows, and Alice Hoffman’s magical writing—in other words, it’s a must-read.
Coralie Sardie’s father runs a Coney Island freak show where she appears as “the Mermaid,” alongside performers like the Wolfman, the Butterfly Girl, and a one-hundred-year-old turtle. When she meets Eddie Cohen, a Russian immigrant photographer, they become embroiled in a moving story of young love in tumultuous times.
This list would not be complete without fiction that takes place uptown—specifically, in Harlem. Harlem, as many already are aware, is a neighborhood steeped in African American history and black culture, and it’s the setting for a number of activist and author James Baldwin’s books. IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK is just one of his incredibly emotional and beautifully written novels, and it follows lovers Tish and Fonny as they try to clear Fonny’s name after he is falsely accused and imprisoned for rape. With a little 1970s New York and a lot of James Baldwin’s literary masterwork, this is a seriously moving book that leaves a huge impression.
Toni Morrison’s powerful novel, JAZZ, takes place in Harlem during the 1920s and follows the lives and relationships surrounding married couple Violet and Joe. Joe has an affair with a young woman, and kills her when she decides to leave him. Violet appears at the funeral and attacks the corpse with a knife. But Violet then talks with the young woman’s aunt, and they become friendly. The novel’s narrator shifts throughout the novel as the storyline divulges Joe’s and Violet’s history. It’s Toni Morrison doing what Toni Morrison does best.
Have you ever heard of the Barbizon Hotel for Women? In the early 1900s, it was a place that housed ambitious young women, many aspiring to be actors, writers, and models. I hadn’t heard of it until I picked this book up—and then I had endless questions. Whose idea was it to create this hotel? Where was the hotel located? Is the original building still standing? Did anyone super famous actually live there? (I now have most of the answers—thanks, Google!) This fascinating building, still standing on the corner of Lexington and 63rd Street, is the central topic that ties this novel together. In 1952, Darby moves in, but feels like she doesn’t fit in with the other residents. She makes friends with a maid and begins to explore downtown New York, filled with jazz and heroin. In the present day, journalist Rose Lewin begins to look into Darby—her upstairs neighbor—and rumors about her involvement with the maid’s death. Who doesn’t love a story that takes place in a rent-controlled building?
Decade? 1930s. Location? Lower East Side. Character? A fictionalized version of Mazie Gordon-Phillips, a woman who lived in New York’s downtown area and was dubbed “Queen of the Bowery” for her charity to the homeless and poor who lived nearby. This version follows her from her work at a theater downtown to her family’s home out in Coney Island and back to the Lower East Side, to which book depicts her has having a magnetized attraction. If you’re looking for a truly pleasant historical read about a lively neighborhood and an utterly charming character, this is it.
Julianna’s Fictional Dinner Party Guest: Mazie Phillips
Though she’s technically based on a real person, Jami Attenberg’s titular (fictional) character would be an amazing guest in her own right. Mazie is brazen, bold, and compassionate—she sees the city change from inside her movie ticket booth, and would have some great stories.
This classic coming-of-age novel is set in Williamsburg, but as the book description calls it, the “slums of Williamsburg.” Today, that’s like an oxymoron—the area has gone through an extreme period of gentrification and is very unlike the humble and industrial area of the city Betty Smith outlines in the book. However, it is quite fun to read this book and try to map young Francie’s neighborhood adventures to the current area. Although it focuses on a specific place and time, reading this novel is like experiencing the wonder and struggles of growing into yourself, and Smith expertly depicts the Williamsburg world in the early 1900s so that it feels tangible.
This American classic coming-of-age tale centers around Francie Nolan, a young, sensitive reader living in the slums of Williamsburg, Brooklyn (oh, how times have changed). I read this book, I think, a bit too early to fully understand it, so when I encountered it again in high school, it was a much more pleasant and satisfying experience. As far as I’m concerned, it should be a staple.
Crime! Speakeasies! Obsessions! The 1920s! While THE GREAT GATSBY famously depicted the indulgences of the 1920s, there’s another tale that I think is crucial to this discussion: THE OTHER TYPIST. This thriller follows Odalie—a glamorous typist with a penchant for downtown jazz clubs—and Rose—a lady-like typist working at the police department. Rose becomes obsessed with Odalie, and things spiral from there. I want seedy New York and women who end up doing dangerous things—and this book does not disappoint.
New York, 1924. The hemlines are disappearing, the jazz is hot, and the gin is cold . . . but not in Rose Baker’s world. Rose is an odd duck, as restrained as the times are not, working as a police typist in a downtown Manhattan precinct. Then the Other Typist arrives. Odalie is alluring, sexy, and entirely out of place in the masculine world of the cop shop. As Rose is sucked under by Odalie, their obsessive friendship teases dire consequences that play out in grim and surprising ways.
Crazy like: The quiet one (it’s always the quiet one).
Best crazy moment: Rose bobbing her hair.
Here’s what I would say to Colm Tóibín about this book: My heart! Look at what you did to my heart! With the help of a Brooklyn priest, an Irish girl arrives in New York City in the years following World War II, and begins working at a department store on Fulton Street in Brooklyn. She falls in love with a man from an Italian family, but news from Ireland threatens her future.
Even if you saw the movie, the book is worth the read. Immigration and immigration stories are central to New York City (past, present, and future), and this novel does something that many aspire to: It beautifully communicates love, loss, and the experience of leaving one place and trying to create a life in a new one. It’s an incredible New York tale, and showcases a number of different areas around the city.
Acclaimed character actress Saoirse Ronan takes center stage as Eilis Lacey, a young woman who abandons small-town Ireland and the comfort of her mother's home for the anonymous shores of New York City. In Brooklyn, she finds a city in flux—a city where immigrants from Ireland and Poland live amongst Jewish and black communities—and just as she is beginning to fall in love with a young man, devastating news from Ireland threatens the promise of her new life.
Release Date: November 6, 2015
(Final note: Stories from Queens, the Bronx, and Staten Island are missing from this list. They are great areas with histories worth exploring as well!)