06 December 2007

Book Review: 1876 by Gore Vidal

2007 TBR Challenge #11
Armchair Traveller Challenge #5

1876 After decades of self-imposed exile in Europe, Charles Schermerhorn Schuyler returns to America, accompanied by his widowed daughter and far too little money. Needing to makes ends meet - at least until Emma can find a suitably wealthy second husband - he makes the rounds of the newspapers, securing commissions to write about the forthcoming presidential election of 1876. The opportunity is too good to pass up, because in addition to the income it offers a chance for Charlie to work for the election of Samuel Tilden, the Governor of New York. Once Tilden is in office, his loyal supporter can talk his way into a comfortable posting to France, by which time he hopes to see Emma safely married to rising lawyer John Day Apgar. But the course of true love isn’t so easily decreed, and some last-minute manoeuvrings by the Republicans could see Charlie’s retirement plans come to nothing.

Earlier in the year, to keep my multiple challenges organised, I drew up a table allocating books to months (1876 was assigned to always-busy November by virtue of its representing two challenges at once). That was the only reason I picked it up - without thinking - and I soon wished I’d been paying rather more attention. Reading a book heavily focussed on a presidential election across the weekend of the recent federal election was just too much politics to absorb at once. So it’s a hard book to evaluate: maybe I would have liked it more at another time, but then I’m not a fan of politics, so perhaps not. As it was, I hurried through it by the simple expedient of reading a set number of pages before each chapter of Harry Potter. (Amazing what difference the right motivation makes.) Another reason for its being hard to read was the lack of suspense. Even I know enough American history to know who did and didn’t become president. And I could see fairly easily what Emma wasn’t going to do (but not what she did, and not what she may or may not have done). On the up side, Charlie was an entertaining narrator when not getting mired in the electoral process (and leaving me still baffled as to the nature and function of the Electoral College) and I had fun spotting landmarks previously encountered in The Alienist. There were also enough real-life people thrown in - including Mark Twain - to suit the Armchair Traveller Challenge and provide a glimpse of life at the upper end of bicentennial New York society.

Rating: C-


Nikki said...

Your comments about 1876 are interesting... go to www.SamuelTilden.com - where you can read an except of Samuel Tilden the Real 19th President.
I felt the same way about all the Tilden books I read...

Adrian Windisch said...

I just finished 1876, it was pretty good. Weren't you struck with similarities on the election Bush 'won' from Gore?

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Header image shows detail of A Young Girl Reading by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, c. 1776