I'm not entirely sure why but I thought this novel was a bit of a minor classic for time travel novels. I was expecting something slightly whimsical and fun that would follow around the narrator as he enjoyed 19th century New York City, similar to The Little Book by Selden Edwards. Instead I got this thing with lots of descriptions and barely any plot.
Now, I know I've said this a few times when talking about historical fiction but one challenge that authors face and that the best overcome very well is how to incorporate their research organically without feeling like a data dump or them showing off - just because you learned how to make soap 17th century style doesn't mean I need all the details. A time travel novel faces this challenge as well, but to a lesser degree. After all, if the narrator is from the modern day, he is going to notice the differences and remark on them so the author gets to show off his research and knowledge more. However, that shouldn't happen to the detriment of the plot so when a four hundred page novel feels like two hundred pages of straight up, long and tedious description, something has gone wrong.
First off, this novel was first published in 1970, and is set in that time frame so I may have been missing a bit of cultural context, such as disillusionment with the government due to Vietnam as well as just local occurences in Manhattan, so my reaction may be a bit more critical as a result of this. Anyway, the novel begins in its idea of modern, so late 1960's/1970, when Simon, the narrator, is approached to join a secret government project. Simon is intrigued and becomes a member of a experiment attempting to test time travel. Their idea behind time travel is rather simple, and eventually, Simon successfully finds himself in 1882 Manhattan. It takes over a quarter of the novel to get to the past but at this point the novel wasn't irritating me. I figured it was a slow burn - I wasn't exactly excited to pick it up each evening but I also wasn't put off by it.
Now, the reason Simon went back to 1882 is because his girlfriend Kate has a letter that her guardian had kept from his father dated 1882, and the agency was willing to let Simon pursue his whim to find out more about the letter. So the whole plot of the novel revolves around Simon finding out more about the letter and its sender, Jake, which leads to him staying at the same boarding house and falling for Jake's girlfriend Julia. Eventually, Simon decides that Jake is evil, and Julia could do better, so he is willing to risk the course of history to prevent a woman from a bad marriage (this all happens within a four or five day period at most). Yep, that's the plot. There's also a fire and lots of other stupidity. And descriptions of store fronts. And a carriage driver that gives a page and a half speech about the horrible work conditions. Despite this speech, Simon continues to romanitcize the 19th century. Seriously, you know how everyone now is obsessed with the "good old days" of the 1950s? That nostalgia for a time that never happened - well, apparently in the 1960s this nostalgia was for the 1880s.
And I think that may be my biggest gripe about the novel - the past and history are interesting, but there is no such thing as the perfect time period. Look deeper and under the glitz and glamour there will be bad things. Simon may be disillusioned but escaping to the past isn't the solution. He has this whole rant about the evils of the 20th century, including World War I, World War II, the atomic bomb, pollution and the killings of civilians in Vietnam and how that shows that humans are just horrible. While that may be true, I'm not sure how that makes 1882 better - Simon says the evils of the 20th century may have their root in the past but he certainly has rose coloured glasses on. I'm sure the indigenous populations of Australia and America would have something to say about the concept of genocide as a 20th century invention, and I doubt that the victims of Wounded Knee would think that armies in the 19th century were kinder and gentler towards civilians. In fact, if I were to blame someone for World War I, I'm pretty sure I'd point to someone alive in 1882 over someone alive in 1970. But you know, whatever, the past is so much better! He basically thinks people in the past were more alive and interested in their surroundings. I had a similar problem with King's 11/22/63 because I thought he talked too much about the good of the past and neglected the evils of it, but King at least seemed to realize the trap he was falling into and tried to compensate. Finney just dives in head first. Basically, I don't recommend this one. At all.