Sunday, May 22, 2022

Make No Mistake: You Should Be Reading Jonathan Lee's THE GREAT MISTAKE

The reason I read The Great Mistake Jonathan Lee is probably not the reason you should read The Great Mistake, but trust me (or, hey, make no mistake…), you should definitely read The Great Mistake.

So, why, you may or may not ask, did I read The Great Mistake? Because its authors surname is Lee, just like mine, and I like to read at least one book by another Lee every year. This habit started some years ago when someone I met told me, “oh, Lee, that’s the most common surname in the world,” which is actually not even close to true, it only even hovers in the top five if you include varied spellings like ‘Li,’ but whatever, I didn’t know that at the time, I just immediately thought, I bet there are a lot of other Lees who’ve written books. You know, like Harper Lee, Laurie Lee (ask a British friend), and Min Jin Lee, and hey, the great Don Lee, with whom we just had a virtual event for his new story collection, The Partition, which is my Lee book for 2022. Is this a dumb way to choose books? Probably, but also probably not the dumbest. Besides, I have my own writerly aspirations, and wouldn’t it be nice to be able to look at my own book on a store shelf one day and see all its Lee friends around it and have read them, too? Of course that is the aspiration that I cling to even if it’s a little embarrassing to admit!

Last year, I was in a reading slump – you know how it goes, for whatever reason every book you pick up is just a total slog, and besides, there’s all this great TV and napping to catch up on – and I was casting around for something to get me into reading again. I had an advance copy of The Great Mistake on my stack, and grabbed it, thinking, “well at least I’ll get my Lee read for the year,” and dove in. And whoa.

Within three pages, I could tell the Lee book trick had worked again. (In fact, it pretty much always has worked for me, obviously because [note to big time, big money agents and editors out there] all Lees are fantastic writers.) But boy oh boy, this time the trick really worked.

And so here we come to the reasons non-Lees should also read this book:

THE HISTORY! Go ahead, google Andrew Haswell Green, the central figure of The Great Mistake, and see what comes up – you’ll find that he’s the ‘unsung hero of Central Park,’ the ‘Father of Greater New York City,’ and also was murdered in his old age. He is, very simply, a fascinating dude. And the book uses him to travel back in time and relive the city as it grew into the Gilded Age. From life on a poverty-stricken farm upstate to the private libraries and halls of power, the book offers a glimpse into the history of the city, not as a survey class or set of factoids, but how it actually felt to live in.

THE MYSTERY! The book jumps back and forth between the life story of Green and the police investigator who is at once trying to suss out why on earth someone would shoot dead an old man and at the same time trying very hard not to succumb to consumption. This is very fun to read.

THE PROSE! And I know, this feels like something somebody says about a novel when they just don’t know what else to say, it’s all, “oh, the prose, it’s just so, you know, prose-y,” but I promise this is not the case with this book. Jonathan Lee is very, very obviously obsessed with language and crafting delightful paragraphs. Now, I think a part of this must be his British heritage – as a friend pointed out to me, the Brits have superior vocabularies to us. And his is not only excellent, but he uses it the way (terrible but apt metaphor alert) Chagall used color. Every page is full of sentences and paragraphs crafted with the precision and care of obscenely expensive Swiss watches. And the best part of them -

THE SURPRISES! I often stopped to reread pages throughout the book as I was going along because so often Lee is able to just completely blindside you with where he’s going and what he’s about to say. Really. If half the fun of reading is finding out “what comes next,” this book is a feast of delights, because from page to page, from even the beginning of each sentence to its end, you never know where Lee is going to take you.

THE HEART! For all this, there’s one thing you’ve gotta have in any book to really care about it, right? A bit of heart. Well, for all of the amazing writing about the city and the murder mystery and the past, The Great Mistake has at its beating heart the story of a restless, creative man determined to shape history while at the same time being bound by the moral code of his day. Here is a man who wants so much and the only real question is, what will he decide he wants the most?

The greatest mistake of all would obviously be not reading this book.

If you are reading this on or before May 24, you can attend this virtual event live by registering on Zoom here. And if it's after May 24, there's a good chance we'll have a link to the recording.

Photo credit: Tanja Kernweiss

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