three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
23-July-Aug-2006
By: 
Emily Barton
user_rating: 
0

A-BrooklandIn 18th-century Brooklyn, Prue Winship dreams big. After inheriting a successful gin distillery from her father, Prue—at a time when women were not yet considered citizens—envisions a suspension bridge that will cross the East River and connect Brooklyn and Manhattan, a dream that holds allure and spiritual significance for her. (The bridge is not, in fact, the Brooklyn Bridge, which opened in 1883, but the never-built Flying Pendant Lever Bridge, designed in 1811.) Dedicating herself to the project, Prue involves her husband and sisters—one of whom she cursed at birth—in one of the world’s most ambitious public-works projects to date. Confronting engineering obstacles and gender restrictions, Prue sacrifices everything—including her relationships, happiness, and emotional well-being—to watch her extraordinary vision begin to take shape.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 478 pages. $25. ISBN: 0374116903

Detroit Free Press 4.5 of 5 Stars
"The result is a novel as transporting as Yves Gundron, but all the more remarkably so for being virtually without any tricks of narrative. This time, Barton’s delicately realistic prose soars alone, illuminating the shadows within a heart." Marta Salij

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Make no mistake—this is not a book about history but a novel set in the past. … Emily Barton has taken an elegant way with questions of thought-provoking substance and has made a very fine and satisfying novel." Tim Rutten

San Diego Union-Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"It is here, in the exacting description of bridge-building and the workings of the distillery, in the resonance of the language to its time and the authenticity and authority of the small details, that we come to know the immense range of the author’s mind. … When Barton, a young writer still, turns her prodigious mind and talents to the contemporary world, it will be something to see." Julie Brickman

Christian Science Monitor 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Readers used to four-page chapters and breathless narration should take a deep breath, slow down, and smell the lavender and anise. … The leisurely pace evaporates near the novel’s end, when calamities come thick and fast—so fast that the ending could use another 30 pages to balance the weight of them." Yvonne Zipp

Hartford Courant 2.5 of 5 Stars
"The fictional bridge simply seems too big a factor to lie. … These, then, are the rewards of reading Brookland: a thoroughly believable immersion in the daily life of Brooklyn of the late 1700s and early 1800s; an entertaining introduction to three sisters who could set the notion of early American womanhood on its ear; and the unconvincing fable of a bridge that never was." Jeanne A. LeBlanc

San Francisco Chronicle 1.5 of 5 Stars
"Losing the grip of her novel’s promising narrative, Barton squanders its energy, resulting in little more than a half-built bridge to nowhere." Saul Austerlitz

Critical Summary

After the highly acclaimed The Testament of Yves Gundron (2000) comes an epic novel that captures the sights, smells, and visions of 18th-century Brooklyn. Told mostly through Prue’s letters to her married daughter, Brookland imagines a world where personal drama, romance, family relationships, and tragedy play out against the construction of a fictional bridge. Barton possesses a rich imagination, and the heroic, prefeminist Prue captivated all critics. A few noted that Barton plays too loose and fast with history and that the last third of the novel fails to satisfy. The overall verdict: Barton is a talented writer to watch.

Also by the Author

The Testament of Yves Gundron (2000): A medieval farmer reflects on how the harness—and an encounter with a 20th-century anthropologist—changed his and his village’s values and lives.