March 28, 2005 12:00 PM

NOVEL

by Elizabeth Gaffney

Gaffney’s boisterous debut novel is a love story, but also a love letter—to New York City. The romance between a German immigrant who calls himself Frank Harris and Beatrice O’Gamhna, an Irish girl gangster, develops in the Big Apple of the late 1800s, when the Brooklyn Bridge was under construction and running water was a novelty. Harris is a roustabout tending exotic animals at P.T. Barnum’s American Museum when the building burns and he’s accused of arson. With the help of her cronies, O’Gamhna forges a new identity for him. He disappears into the chaotic city, unaware he’s caught up in a risky plot spun by Beatrice’s gang.

Gaffney, an editor at the literary journal The Paris Review, never idealizes the past. Her New York, while a place of breathtaking possibility, is populated by prostitutes and pickpockets, and her settings include the home office of an abortionist who rinses her instruments in dishwater. A large cast of characters clogs the early pages, making it hard to follow the story initially. But ultimately this brash historical novel satisfies precisely because it is sprawling and teeming with people—like the city its author obviously adores.

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