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The Waterworks (1994)

by E. L. Doctorow

Other authors: See the other authors section.

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
1,2312111,314 (3.5)37
An elegant page-turner of nineteenth-century detective fiction. - The Washington Post Book World One rainy morning in 1871 in lower Manhattan, Martin Pemberton a freelance writer, sees in a passing stagecoach several elderly men, one of whom he recognizes as his supposedly dead and buried father. While trying to unravel the mystery, Pemberton disappears, sending McIlvaine, his employer, the editor of an evening paper, in pursuit of the truth behind his freelancer's fate. Layer by layer, McIlvaine reveals a modern metropolis surging with primordial urges and sins, where the Tweed Ring operates the city for its own profit and a conspicuously self-satisfied nouveau-riche ignores the poverty and squalor that surrounds them. In E. L. Doctorow's skilled hands, The Waterworks becomes, in the words of The New York Times, a dark moral tale . . . an eloquently troubling evocation of our past. Startling and spellbinding . . . The waters that lave the narrative all run to the great confluence, where the deepest issues of life and death are borne along on the swift, sure vessel of Doctorow' s] poetic imagination. - The New York Times Book Review Hypnotic . . . a dazzling romp, an extraordinary read, given strength and grace by the telling, by the poetic voice and controlled cynical lyricism of its streetwise and world-weary narrator. - The Philadelphia Inquirer A gem of a novel, intimate as chamber music . . . a thriller guaranteed to leave readers with residual chills and shudders. - Boston Sunday Herald Enthralling . . . a storyof debauchery and redemption that is spellbinding from first page to last. - Chicago Sun-Times An immense, extraordinary achievement. - San Francisco Chronicle From the Trade Paperback edition.… (more)
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» See also 37 mentions

Showing 1-5 of 18 (next | show all)
It's easy enough to read, but I had a little difficulty at first in developing an interest. But it came soon enough.

The narrator, McIlvaine, is a newspaperman. An editor at the start of the story, he works with my "freelances", as he call s them. The story takes place in the 1870s, although the narrator is recalling it from many years later.

One of the freelances is Martin Pemberton. Martin was disowned by his father, struck out of his will, for stating his belief that his father was a greedy SOB, although not in those exact words. Martin didn't care about money in any case and was happy to be on call for newspaper work. He became, in fact, the narrator's favorite, as he wrote well and reliably.

Then came the time Martin disappeared. McIlvaine made inquiries and learned that Martin had been telling others that he had seen his father - his dead father - in a carriage being driven down the street. He was among other old men. Although he'd not been close to his father, Martin was shaken by the image and compelled to figure out what he had seen and why.

And so, eventually, was McIlvaine. The answer is then the subject of the story. Quite a strange one it is, one dipping into medical sci fi and featuring a brilliant but amoral doctor.

I found it absorbing and odd enough to make me think a bit. ( )
  slojudy | Sep 8, 2020 |
The best historical novels read as if they were written in the time they are being written about. It can’t be easy to create that illusion, while at the same time producing a story contemporary readers can appreciate, understand and identify with. E.L. Doctorow does all this nicely in his 1994 novel “The Waterworks.”

Doctorow’s narrator is McIlvaine, a now aged newspaperman remembering his best story, one he couldn’t dare tell in his newspaper back in the 1870s when it all occurred. Now, after so many years, it doesn’t matter whether anyone believes it or not.

Martin Pemberton, a freelance or what we would today call a freelancer, mentions one day that he has seen his father. No big deal, except for the fact that his father, Augustus Pemberton (a wealthy, disreputable businessman) is dead and buried. McIlvaine assumes his reporter is just mistaken, until Martin disappears and the newsman learns that when the old man’s grave is opened the body of a boy is found inside. To help find Martin, McIlvaine enlists the services of one of the few honest cops in New York City during the Boss Tweed era, Capt. Edmund Donne. When they find Martin he is being held captive in, of all places, an orphanage.

The shocking story Martin later tells involves a mad doctor of the Doctor Moreau school of medicine who convinces dying old men of great wealth to, in exchange for passing that wealth on to him, gain, if not immortality, at least extra years of blissful existence as guinea pigs in a great scientific experiment. How the doctor makes use of the orphans is another part of the horror.

Other writers might have taken Doctorow’s plot, doubled the length of the novel (Doctorow’s goes barely 250 pages), added more deaths and sex and shocks, and gotten a bestseller in the horror genre. Doctorow earned his bestseller with an understated literary novel in which most of the horror comes secondhand. For someone like me who doesn’t go for horror anyway, secondhand is more than good enough. ( )
  hardlyhardy | Jul 9, 2018 |
I've read a fair amount of Doctorow's work and have enjoyed it, but I'm afraid this one left me cold. It started off well, but most of the major action seemed to take place "off stage," and the narrator's voice failed to draw me in. Stylistically I was bothered by Doctorow's love affair with ellipses. Ellipses are like red pepper and should be used judiciously, but this book is pockmarked with them, and the overuse distracted and even annoyed me. ( )
1 vote mrsmig | Jan 19, 2018 |
Pretty good story line; very good writing ( )
  JosephKing6602 | May 2, 2017 |
The setting is New York City in 1871, and Boss Tweed is running everything in the corrupt city. When Martin Pemberton sees his supposedly-dead father riding in a carriage and then disappears himself, his friend and colleague, Mr. McIllvaine, is drawn into the mysterious search for both men.

Doctorow sets the plot going in quite a few different directions in this one, and it's not until the very end of the novel that he lets you know how all the threads tie together. While I appreciate the complexity of this, it causes the story to jump around so much that it was hard for me to stay interested. I've read half a dozen of Doctorow's novels now, and I've come to the realization that he and I just don't get along very well. He's not a bad writer by any means, he's just not my cup of tea. ( )
  AmandaL. | Jan 16, 2016 |
Showing 1-5 of 18 (next | show all)
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» Add other authors (7 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
E. L. Doctorowprimary authorall editionscalculated
Hanzlíková, LudmilaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed

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For I. Doctorow and Philip Blair Rice
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People wouldn't take what Martin Pemberton said as literal truth, he was much too melodramatic or too tormented to speak plainly.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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An elegant page-turner of nineteenth-century detective fiction. - The Washington Post Book World One rainy morning in 1871 in lower Manhattan, Martin Pemberton a freelance writer, sees in a passing stagecoach several elderly men, one of whom he recognizes as his supposedly dead and buried father. While trying to unravel the mystery, Pemberton disappears, sending McIlvaine, his employer, the editor of an evening paper, in pursuit of the truth behind his freelancer's fate. Layer by layer, McIlvaine reveals a modern metropolis surging with primordial urges and sins, where the Tweed Ring operates the city for its own profit and a conspicuously self-satisfied nouveau-riche ignores the poverty and squalor that surrounds them. In E. L. Doctorow's skilled hands, The Waterworks becomes, in the words of The New York Times, a dark moral tale . . . an eloquently troubling evocation of our past. Startling and spellbinding . . . The waters that lave the narrative all run to the great confluence, where the deepest issues of life and death are borne along on the swift, sure vessel of Doctorow' s] poetic imagination. - The New York Times Book Review Hypnotic . . . a dazzling romp, an extraordinary read, given strength and grace by the telling, by the poetic voice and controlled cynical lyricism of its streetwise and world-weary narrator. - The Philadelphia Inquirer A gem of a novel, intimate as chamber music . . . a thriller guaranteed to leave readers with residual chills and shudders. - Boston Sunday Herald Enthralling . . . a storyof debauchery and redemption that is spellbinding from first page to last. - Chicago Sun-Times An immense, extraordinary achievement. - San Francisco Chronicle From the Trade Paperback edition.

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