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The Great Mistake

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The merger between Manhattan & Queens County in 1898 was known as The Great Mistake. It’s also the title of a new novel by Jonathan Lee. This work of historical fiction focuses on the life of Andrew Haswell Green, mastermind behind The Great Mistake of 1898, but also Central Park, the New York Public Library, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Natural History, and so much more.

Andrew Haswell Green is known the Father of Greater New York—to those who actually know about him. And to those who benefit from an introduction from Jonathan Lee through his novel, The Great Mistake.

Here’s that introduction.
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A perceptively written historical fiction about the private life of Andrew Haswell Green, 'the Father of Greater New York', an actual historical figure who was responsible in realizing many of New York's iconic landmarks (Central Park, the New York Public Library, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, to name a few).

Using his untimely demise as its point of entry (he was mistakenly targeted and killed at the age of 83), The Great Mistake presents a series of vignettes on two timelines, one following his upbringing and life experience, the other documenting the investigation to his murder. The novel is packed with insightful themes and juxtapositions, painting Andrew as a man defined by series of life-changing 'mistakes', and a walking example of contradictions (extremely stolid and private, yet his devotion is all about creating spaces to bring people together). The delicate prose has its moment of humor, which in context of its melancholic content, becomes quite moving and poignant.

Readers looking for historical facts will be slightly disappointed by The Great Mistake's narrative focus, which is very much exclusively a character study featuring cameos from historical figures, rather than an in-depth reconstruction on how Andrew Haswell Green's accomplishments came to fruition; if you're expecting a heavy dose of documentary-style presentation on these famous structures, they are basically nonexistent in this novel.

The Great Mistake is an immersive interpretation on the life of this less celebrated, yet important historical figure; even though it leans more fiction than fact, and for sure a slow burn, it is still a journey worth experiencing — especially if you already have an affinity of New York and its various iconic sights.
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4.5
An interesting and intimate novel about the life of Andrew Haswell Green. Green was responsible for the creations of Central Park, The Metropolitan Museum, NY Public Library and Bronx Zoo. 
Green was shot outside his home on Park Avenue in 1903 when he was 83 years old.
There is a bit of a mystery about his murder but its really a character study of a man with a great vision.
Great historical fiction.
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Andrew Haswell Green (1820-1903) is the protagonist of this fascinating historical fiction novel.  He was christened the father of New York City for a considerable array of accomplishments including early work to encourage and support the creation of the amazing space that became Central Park and later heading the Central Park Commission with many problem solving cost-cutting activities while fostering the creation of the Metropolitan and Natural History Museums.  He is credited with successfully bringing about the five borough/single city structure of New York, the project that led to the name of this book as many people considered it a great mistake.  He was involved in the creation of New York's first state park, Niagra Falls, to protect the area.  As executor of former Governor/dear friend Samuel Tilden's estate, Haswell used funds from the estate and creatively merged existing private libraries to establish the world renowned New York Public Library.  Who knew?!  Of all the familiar names associated with NYC and its landmarks, I have never heard of Andrew Haswell Green.  Lee imagines through a well-researched and reasonably imagined story the personal and historical context that led to Green's successes.  Green was murdered at age 83 by a man who accused him of interfering with the shooter's relationship with a woman.  I want to avoid spoilers, because this is a story that, much like a murder mystery, has twists, psychological drama, characters aplenty and regular shifts between the present (1903) and various, not chronological periods during Green's formative years.  Lee introduces us to well-developed characters, imagining their thoughts and feelings, each a real person found in the historic records:  the police Inspector who has significant ambition but sticks to an honest, persistent approach to investigating the murder; an unusual madame and her celebrity cliental; Samuel Tilden, attorney and later New York governor, who befriends young Andrew when as a simple store clerk and ultimately inspires him to become a lawyer;   his father who seems to find young Andrew too feminine in his approach to work on the farm, no matter how fast and effectively he works; Andrew's boss on a sugar plantation in Trinidad; his housekeeper who witnessed the murder and knows Andrew as well as anyone can. While I personally like the leaps among years that help explain the very complex Andrew and develop the story beautifully, I imagine some will find it confusing.  If you want your historical fiction accurate and engaging and to teach you something you did not know; if you love wonderful character development and thoughtful writing; if you like a good story and want to be entertained; read "The Great Mistake"
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Jonathan Lee's A GREAT MISTAKE is a treat for readers of literary history...and for lovers of suspense. Rich in a sense of place and time and wonderfully creative, Lee's novel brings to vivid life New York City and its inhabitants.  Highly recommended!
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A delightful piece of historical fiction about the life and murder of Andrew Haswell Green.

Most informed New Yorkers know of Andrew Haswell Green, thanks to his great contributions to the creation of Central Park, the public library, the Met, and many other cultural institutions in the city. 

But the details of his life and death have never been at the forefront until now, when Lee constructs a faithful (though technically fictional) biography of the man and the events that led to his prominence as a sort of city father as well as his murder, a fascinating and bizarre case of mistaken identity.

Lee did an exceptional job of taking what was already a strange, completely factual tale and fleshing out the details that have been lost to history, at once staying faithful to the truth while also beautifully crafting the details of Andrew Haswell Green’s riveting life story. 

Despite the protagonist’s murder being the primary focus of the book, Lee makes the story more like a celebration of Andrew’s life, fraught with humor, sweet moments, and interesting bits of history. 

The story is a touch slow at times, but mostly the humor floats the reader through these sections, and on the whole it’s an excellent look into the life of a tremendously influential New Yorker who doesn’t get talked about nearly enough.
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Andrew Haswell Green being shot and killed in an act of mistaken identity is the coda of a life that through equal parts of bad luck, bad choices, and bad manners never reaches the heights that Green so craved, and consigned him to the footnotes of history. The Great Mistake provides a "perhaps this happened" fictional history and biography of Green, alternating with his death and its aftermath. 

While the book tends to hammer a few points home--the "life-long bachelor" with a wink and a nod is repeated to the point where the reaction is "yes, I know this--now move on with the story", but other than that minor point, the book provides a warning to those who might hope to be remembered for their works.

Someone has to remember you and like you after you die, or else your story stope here.
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I’m judging the L.A. Times 2020 and 2021 fiction contest. It’d be generous to call what I’m doing upon my first cursory glance—reading. I also don’t take this task lightly. As a fellow writer and lover of words and books, I took this position—in hopes of being a good literary citizen. My heart aches for all the writers who have a debut at this time. What I can share now is the thing that held my attention and got this book from the perspective pile into the read further pile. 

“They shared the smile they always shared, then together lifted knives and forks, His housekeeper was a sprightly seventy-nine-year-old, her once fiery Irish curls now resembled coiled metal.”
Compelling. Well plotted.
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4.5 stars for me.

Andrew Green has been shot dead in front of his stately New York City home at the age of 83. He was an elderly man but remained an opinionated spitfire who hadn't felt finished making incredibly significant contributions to society.

The real but forgotten figure of Green was involved in a gloriously and absurdly extensive array of essential projects—the creation of Central Park, the founding of the Met Museum and the Natural History Museum, putting Boss Tweed behind bars, securing a more equitable New York public school system, establishing the New York Public Library, and combining Manhattan with Brooklyn and Queens into a greater New York.

In The Great Mistake, inspectors take into custody the man who shot Green; they work to understand the shooter's odd story and to retrace Green's last steps in hopes of understanding the reason for his death.

But this is primarily a story about a man coming into his own during that time and in that place. The book tracks backward as young Andrew Green struggles to realize his immense potential despite a modest start in life. He constantly feels that he must disguise and push down his personal and professional desires, and this push and pull affects his life path and his intense drive to achieve. Lee's detail is just fantastic in terms of Green's emotions, hopes, dreams, everyday life at the time, and everything else in this epic story.

The Great Mistake feels like a love letter to turn-of-the-century New York. It's a captivating story.

I received a prepublication digital edition of this book courtesy of Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group and NetGalley.
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Published on June 15, Jonathan Lee’s ambitious, intricate and innovative The Great Mistake has its roots in the life of Andrew Haswell Green, the New York civic leader known as the force behind iconic city settings including Central Park. Lee moves back and forth in time to chronicle Green’s life; his mysterious death by gunshot in 1903 by an assailant who, historical records suggest, mistook him for someone else; and the subsequent probe of Green’s murder. Lee illuminates Green as a man who has both a highly respected public reputation and a complex, constrained and somewhat yearning private existence. New York at the turn of the century too is evoked with energy, richness, and wonderful prose. The segments of the novel that imagine the investigation of Green’s death are perhaps the novel’s most purely entertaining, thanks to the ebulliently odd, colorful characters of police inspector McCluskey and wealthy madam Bessie Davis. But it’s Lee’s expansive look at Green’s life, rather than death, that offers its most touching as well as most thought-provoking material. “It was a cathedral of possibilities ...” Lee has Green think of New York; “it might remember him or it might forget him.” It has indeed, largely, forgotten him, making Lee’s fictional vision all the more welcome. Highly recommended for lovers of history, New York City, and inventive literary fiction.
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Sorry to say that I just couldn't engaged in it even though I had such high hopes. The style seemed so pedantic yet convoluted. The man had a poor self image and felt isolated for most of his life yet provided us with such wonders.
I requested and received a temporary digital ARC of this book from Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
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“The Great Mistake,” by Jonathan Lee, Knopf, 304 pages, June 15, 2021.

Andrew Haswell Green, 83, was fatally shot on Park Avenue in New York on Nov. 13, 1903.

Green was a lawyer, city planner and civic leader. He led to the development of Central Park, the New York Public Library, the Bronx Zoo, the American Museum of Natural History and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He was friends with Samuel Tilden, a lawyer who is later governor and a presidential candidate.

Green was going into his home for lunch when he was killed. The murder, on Friday the thirteenth, shook the city. Mrs. Bray, his housekeeper, and several bystanders witnessed the murder. The shooter said “Tell me where she is, Mr. Green,” before firing five shots. 

Two policemen heard the shots and apprehended Cornelius Williams. Inspector McClusky is in charge of he investigation. Williams insists that Green knew where Bessie Davis is. 

Green wasn’t from an affluent family. His father was a poor farmer in Massachusetts and drank too much. Green was the seventh of 11 children. His mother died when he was 12. When he was 15, his father sent him away to be an apprentice in a general store in New York.

The title of The Great Mistake comes from the story of New York’s consolidation of five boroughs as Green’s critics described as the Great Mistake of 1898. This is based on a true story. The book alternates between his early and later lives. It is slow-moving at times but readers who enjoy historical fiction may like it.

In accordance with FTC guidelines, the advance reader's edition of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for a review.
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In The Great Mistake, author Jonathan Lee tells the intriguing story of Andrew Haswell Green, nicknamed “the father of Greater New York.”  A community leader behind the consolidation of New York City and the development of Central Park, New York Public Library, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the American Museum of Natural History, and the Bronx Zoo, 83-year-old Green was murdered outside the front door of his Park Avenue townhouse on Friday, November 13th, 1903. 

Chapter 1 opens with the “fateful final morning” of Green’s life.  As he rushes home to meet his housekeeper’s 1:30 lunch curfew, hoping lunch will not be halibut again, readers learn about his love-hate relationship with the city that might remember or forget him. Not yet revealing how Green dies, Lee attributes his death to a series of mistakes and coincidences, bad luck and a bit of design, that leave him face up on his doorstep, “lifeless as all the newspapers that would bear his name in the morning.”  

After hooking readers with this opening, Jonathan Lee moves back and forth between 1903 and the past, gradually revealing details of Green’s murder and of the long, troubled life leading up to it.  Readers learn about his early years on a Massachusetts farm, his lonely Life in New York after having been apprenticed there by his father, his sense of hope when befriended by wealthy Samuel J. Tilden, who would go on to be a New York governor and 1876 Democratic candidate for President, his devastation when Tilden abruptly ends that friendship, and much more.  Although the murderer, Cornelius Williams, was captured outside Green’s home, readers likewise learn about investigative procedures, the officer in charge of the investigation, newspaper reports, and media and public speculation about the murderer’s motive and Green’s possible roles in bringing about his death. 

In addition to his complex plot structure, Lee creatively names his chapters after Central Park’s gates and organizes details in such a way that gate names and plot intertwine.  For instance, Chapter 6, “Merchants’ Gate,” portrays teenage Green’s departure from Green Hill, the family farm, and life as an apprentice at Hinsdale & Atkins, a general store in New York, whereas Chapter 17, “Farmers’ Gate,” deals with 21-year-old Green’s return to Green Hill and temporary thoughts about remaining there.  On the other hand, perhaps the idea of using gate names as chapter titles led to the complex plot structure.  Whatever the case, both writing decisions work well together and prove highly effective.

The Great Mistake is Jonathan Lee’s fourth novel, preceded by Who Is Mr. Satoshi?, Joy, and High Dive—the latter about the 1984 assassination attempt on British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.  With their interconnected mysteries and varying perspectives, his earlier books can be viewed as forerunners of his newest work.  Alex Preston’s May 30 review in The Guardian sums up Lee’s latest accomplishment:  “The Great Mistake is a book of extraordinary intelligence and style, written in language at once beautiful and playfully aphoristic.  It’s a novel whose protagonist—decent, dignified, wounded—will live long in the mind of those that read it, a novel that delivers wholeheartedly on Lee’s early promise.” 

If you want a straightforward chronological plot, fast action, and a book you can skim, The Great Mistake is not for you.  If you are willing to read closely, enjoy Lee’s rhetorical style, and savor his organizational choices, buy a copy or place one on hold at your local library.   This book is already appearing on lists of recommended novels and is well worth the time for serious readers.

Thanks to NetGalley and Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group for the opportunity to review an advance reader copy.
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This is a mixture of historical fiction and a detective story. Andrew Haswell Green was a real person who was responsible for many of NYC's most important civic projects, the most significant being Central Park. Also, as an octogenarian, he was shot to death in front of his home on Park Avenue. Although the murderer was apprehended, little is known about the motive. Likewise, not much is known about Green's background. With these two tantalizing mysteries in hand, Lee has fashioned an intriguing story that embellishes Green's life and death. The narrative structure consists of two parallel stories: one follows Green's backstory from his childhood in Massachusetts to his time as an apprentice in NYC, a brief period in Jamaica, and his ultimate settling in NYC. The other follows a detective who is attempting to unravel the mystery behind Green's murder. Lee suggests that Green may have been a closeted homosexual whose significant other was Samuel Tilden, a governor of NY as well as a presidential candidate. Although never really resolved, Lee further suggests that Green's murder may have been a case of mistaken identity. These two revelations carry a double meaning for the novel's title.

Although a little slow and meandering, Lee's narrative is clear and focused enough to keep most readers intrigued. He succeeds in evoking the gritty aspects of turn-of-the-century life in NYC, while also portraying Green as a visionary social innovator. With the exceptions of the Mrs's Bray and "Davis" his characterizations, even including his protagonist, seem understated, detracting from their appeal.
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A strangely subversive historical novel about the life, thwarted sexuality, and murder of a now-forgotten historical figure who once dominated Gilded Age New York. The novel's title is meaningful in many different personal and political contexts.

I knew next to nothing about Andrew Haswell Green's (1820-1903), and his only memorial is a marble bench in a distant corner of Central Park, near Harlem Meer. But, as we learn here, Green was the Robert Moses of his day. He was extremely influential in unifying the five boroughs into the City of New York in 1898, planning its major landmarks (including Central Park, the New York Public Library,  the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Bronx Zoo, and the American Museum of Natural History), and cleaning up after the vast municipal corruption ring of Boss Tweed.

Lee's style is wry and observant, but he doesn't attempt a late nineteenth-century pastiche (except in some purple arias of period-perfect dialogue). So this is less like Francis Spufford's Golden Hill or Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence and more like a loving homage to E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime-- it's totally immersive but Lee doesn't gratuitously flaunt the deep research. Each chapter, named after a gate in Central Park, interleaves Green's life story with the investigation of his seemingly random murder on Park Avenue (not a spoiler-- this happens on page 1!). 

The son of an indebted Massachusetts farmer, Green apprentices as a shop boy in New York, becomes an overseer of a sugar plantation in just-emancipated Trinidad, and cunningly maneuvers himself into a position of wealth and power as corporate lawyer and power broker. He was the law partner of Samuel Tilden, who is relatively better-known as the governor of New York and a failed presidential candidate in the rigged election of 1876. 

Both Green and Tilden died as bachelors, and Lee portrays them as chaste companions, at least one of whom longed for something slightly more than platonic-- very Henry Jamesian. The cast of characters also includes a fantastically wealthy Black courtesan, a cocaine-addicted NYPD detective, a sly Irish housekeeper, Teddy Roosevelt, and a madman with a revolver.  

Irresistibly enjoyable, and does something new in a very crowded field. 

Thanks to Netgalley and Knopf for providing an ARC in exchange for an honest and unbiased review.
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An unusual, memorable portrait of a real figure whose massive achievements seem not to have accorded him a place in the modern memory. Lee’s biographical fiction does an intriguing job of touching in the reticent yet bold character of Andrew Green, an outsider all his life despite his gifts and works. A rich portrait of a man and his time.
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What shaped Andrew Haswell Green to become one of the most influential people shaping the map of New York City as we know it today? And what drove another man to murder Green at the age of eighty-three?

NYC, 1903: “The last attempt on the life of Andrew Haswell Green took place on Park Avenue in 1903.” Mrs. Bray, a housekeeper, is questioned at a police station, repeatedly by different officers. She relates the events of the day leading to murder, and through her eyes we glimpse who her employer was – a pioneer.

As a young boy growing up on a farm in Massachusetts, Andrew enjoys the farm choirs and the long walks in nature. He enjoys that feeling of adventure and exploration. And though he is not one for reading, when his sister puts him to shame he develops a technique for reading certain pages and imagining the rest. His farm life ends when his father arranges an apprenticeship at a general store in New York. While he doesn’t want to leave the farm, once in the city, his first independent income gives him a thrilling satisfaction. And it’s here he meets and forges a friendship with Samuel Tilden, who later becomes a prominent New York lawyer.

The title of The Great Mistake comes from the story of New York’s consolidation of five boroughs. “A project his critics described as the Great Mistake of 1898.” The Father of Greater New York was the founder of many public places, including museums, zoo, parks, and more. Places that are enjoyed by many New Yorkers and visitors every day.

The proceedings in the murder case create underlying suspense and the character development gives the story an interesting depth, which is the strength of this story.

(4 stars: Personally, I don’t like to read about any kind of proceedings. Thus, the proceedings of the murder case did not hold my interest. However, the life of Andrew Green is interesting.)

Review originally posted at mysteryandsuspense.com
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The true story of the murder of a extremely fascinating person I had never heard of before . I highly recommend this to history readers
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When I started "The Great Mistake," I thought Andrew Haswell Green must be a fictional character--how could one person be responsible for so much of what makes New York great? The public library, Central Park, the Metropolitan Museum were all developed by this man, who began life as a New England farm boy.  Even though his achievements are mind-boggling, Andrew Green is best known for having been shot on the front steps of his home in 1903 by a Black man looking for "Mrs. Davis." Did Andrew Green know her? Who was she? Who was he for that matter?

I found the most intriguing part of this story the unlikeliness of this man's rise to fame. Unloved at home, sent to New York to apprentice at a general store, skinny, shy, attracted to men, uneducated, what did he have that rocketed him to the pinnacle of New York society? 

Jonathan Lee balances Green's unlikely rise and surprising murder at age 83 nicely. Who was this man,  companion of attorney and presidential candidate Samuel Tilden ("companion" is the right word--their relationship consisted of secretly holding hands or gentle shoulder touches) who reimagined the New York we know today? 

"The Great Mistake" can be a little slow, but the story is so surprising that you'll stay with it. Thanks to Knopf and Netgalley for access to this title.

~~Candace Siegle, Greedy Reader.
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