Thursday, April 28, 2011

Review: The Immigrants

The Immigrants is a novel set in the Greater San Francisco Bay Area. For some reason, San Francisco has yet to have its Raymond Chandler, (Wallace Stegner's amazing Angle of Repose notwithstanding) and unfortunately, Howard Fast isn't all that great a writer.

However, I found the book itself compelling reading. It follows the story of Dan Lavette, who as a young man was orphaned by the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906. While he lots his parents, he made a ton of money with the boat his father left him, ferrying people to and from Oakland during and after the days of the disaster. With this, he expanded his fishing fleet, and eventually became a transportation tycoon, along the way picking up a beautiful wife, a mistress, business partners, friends, and enemies. The book ends right after the 1929 Great Depression started, granting a view through the broad sweep of history that the book encompasses. This was a time of history when cutters gave way to powerboats, when railroads were the principal mode of transportation. World War I and its after-effects were widely felt, and inflation became widespread.

What kept me reading was that the author clearly knew the San Francisco Bay Area really well. We get exposed to San Mateo, Menlo Park, Sonoma County, and the environment all during a period of time when $12/day was a princely sum. We get a good view of how hard it was to be a Chinese immigrant during that era. We get to see the prohibition and some of its effects. The weakest part of the novel are the characters. The protagonist, Dan Lavette, is barely fleshed out. His relationship with his estranged wife is described in a few bare sentences, so one is left having to make the leap from the passionate courtship to the estranged marriage with no way to connect the dots. Even the author's attempt to create a non-stereotyped Chinese woman is still weakened by his need to bend everything to his plot, resulting in a barely believable thing for an otherwise strong willed character to do. Ultimately, one sees Lavette as a "Mary Sue" character, one who right until the edge of the Depression, makes all the right decisions with the benefit of hindsight.

If you want literature, read Wallace Stegner's Angle of Repose. Even for an airplane novel, The Immigrants is fun enough, but leaves one feeling empty. I'm unlikely to bother looking at the rest of the 6 book series.
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