Monday, March 17, 2008


Rutherfurd, Edward. 1997. London. 829 pages.

Many times since the Earth was young, the place had lain under the sea.

London is a long novel. A saga of a place, the city of London. It encompasses many times, many cultures, many subjects. History. Religion. Politics. Economics. Sociology. Mythology. Science. Technology. Architecture. Archaeology. Philosophy. Roughly speaking, it begins in 54 B.C., and ends in the midst of World War II, 1941. I won't lie and say it covers each and every century between the two, but if you're looking to fill in the gaps of your knowledge of the British empire, then London is a good place to start.

You might enjoy London if:

a) you love history
b) you like viewing life in terms of the 'big picture'
c) you like reading stories of human nature--the good, the bad, the ugly--what makes us human
d) you like family sagas that trace particular families through generations and generations and more generations.
e) you really want to grasp and understand the royal lines from beginning to end (because goodness knows this knowledge is oh-so-practical)

I first read London back when it was first published in paperback. It was a bestseller. (It had been a bestseller.) It was my first Rutherfurd novel, and it certainly wasn't my last. I had JUST decided to become an English major and a History minor. What does this have to do with anything? Well. I was taking history and literature courses. And a good teacher knows that to understand the literature, you've got to have a good grasp of history--the time, the place, the culture, the society in which a work was written. Through a period of five years, I essentially took courses--sometimes very specific courses--about Britain. I did not take the course on Chaucer. Or the course on Milton. But from the 16th century through the 21rst century, let's just say I was immersed. Of course no study is complete and absolute. I'm sure there are still gaps. But I feel relatively confident with that time period, that culture. I read London fairly early on in my studies. And this DID help me grasp the big picture. One of the things that I will always always be thankful for is that the novel finally helped me understand the royal lines.

But I'll be completely honest. London isn't a novel that is for everyone. You have to sincerely love historical fiction. And you've got to be committed to reading a 800+ page novel. If you read it in hardcover, you also have to be committed to lifting it up and carrying it around. (Paperback is easier, but I wore my copy out!) Like most long historical sagas, you might want to exercise your right to skim. (Like me reading Les Miserables but giving myself permission to skim the battle scenes and the detailed descriptions of how sewers are built for example.) Some of the details I was interested in, some bored me.

One of the things it handles nicely is the conflict in Britain between Catholics and Protestants. And also the conflicts between Protestants. Quakers. Baptists. Puritans. Anglicans, Calvinists. Presbyterians. etc. Going back even further, it imagines what it would have been like in pre-Christian days. Before the gospel message reached the British shores. What it was like when missionaries came. What it was like when this faith was seen as completely bizarre and breaking with everything they knew. When it divided families and cities and towns.

The novel is divided into 21 sections. Some sections--most sections--stand alone. They're only loosely connected to the novel as a whole. (We'll see what the various families are doing in this century.) Other sections are tightly woven together. The action, the characters tie together quite well. Sometimes the generations of family are close between sections (parent-child, grandparent-grandchild) and sometimes hundreds of years have passed. This is somewhat interesting to see as a big picture. How family lines are always climbing or declining in wealth and prominence. The poor family can centuries later be among the leading, ruling families, and then centuries later, be right back in the gutter. I suppose what I'm saying is that the novel shows how small decisions can added together over a period of time make a big big difference. But at the same time it shows that life does go on, that human nature doesn't change, that things like desire and greed and love and hate and revenge and ambition are the backbones of society.

Because the book is in sections, I almost think of them as twenty novellas or so, in terms of quality there is a bit unevenness. Some sections are great. Very interesting. Very well-written. The characters, the action, the story being well-paced and just excellent. Other sections are just okay. The pacing lags a bit in places. The interest isn't always there. If I'm being completely honest the last few chapters drag for me. The first three-fourths of the novel being worthy of four stars at least and the last fourth being a mere three stars.

I do like Edward Rutherfurd's writing.


Unknown said...

I don't think I've ever seen anyone do a blog review of an Edward Rutherford before! I loved reading your review. I like him also. I've read London, Sarum and Russka. I should read The Forest sometime. They remind me so much of James A. Michener, as I loved all those too. Poland, Alaska, etc.

Paige Y. said...

I've read London and Sarum -- London is the reason why I spent 6 hours just in the Tower of London when my husband and I went to England. You're right -- these books aren't for everyone but if you enjoyed Pillars of the Earth, you ought to try London and Sarum. I usually enjoy long, convoluted books and I enjoyed this one.

Becky said...

Nicola, I do enjoy Rutherfurd and Michener. (Though I've read more Rutherfurd than Michener.) Seeing a long, thick historical novel complete with family tree and maps just makes me happy. I love long sagas.

Paige, I can understand why! Reading both of those books makes me want to go :) I haven't read Pillars of the Earth, but I might have to look into it if it's anything like London and Sarum.

I too enjoy "long and convoluted" but I also know that these are sometimes hard to sell others on. Not everyone can appreciate the richness, the diversity, the thoroughness of it. I have one other friend (well of my face-to-face friends) who appreciates Rutherfurd, the rest are too intimidated and think I'm crazy. I'm glad some of my blogging friends appreciate him as well. :)

Paige Y. said...

I'd highly recommend Pillars of the Earth. Also, I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE Sharon Kay Penman! Have you read her books? I have learned a great deal about English history from them.