BOOK CLUB – Gods of Gotham by Lyndsay Faye

Welcome to BOOK CLUB, which I run with co-conspirator Nicole from Linus’s Blanket. Today we will be chatting about The Gods of Gotham by Lyndsay Faye, which was released on March 15th by Amy Einhorn/Putnam Books (twitter | facebook). For those of you reading this post, please remember that this discussion is likely to contain spoilers.

Here is the synopsis of the book I wrote for my review:

In 1845, New York is already full of Irish immigrants;. the Catholicism of most of the Irish did not sit well with the majority Protestant New Yorkers, so when the Great Potato Famine hits and an influx of immigrants promises to pour into the city, tensions rise to an all time high. On the surface, this would seem to be a good time for the city to add a police force, but such a move is not without controversy itself. New York’s new police force is very much a part of the Democratic machine, which in turn relies on votes from the Irish, making many in the city – not least the powerful thugs and criminals – its natural enemies.

Although Timothy Wilde wants nothing to do with the Democratic party, he finds himself appointed to the police force by his older brother after a terrible fire takes both his home and his place of work. Although being a copper star doesn’t really appeal to Tim, it seems that he is in the right profession when he literally stumbles across a case involving a murdered little Irish boy, a case Tim is determined to solve.

Before we get started, here are some of the reviews of readers who will be participating today:

4ever overhead

Between the Covers
Devourer of Books
Karen White Audiobooks
Linus’s Blanket
Must Read Faster

If you plan on participating in today’s BOOK CLUB, please consider subscribing to comments at the bottom of the page (please use the TOP subscription option). I will be updating this post with new questions and ideas over the course of the day.

Here we go…

  • First off, what were your general impressions of the book?
  • Is this a book you would have read had you not been reading it for a book club?
  • How much did you know about mid-19th century New York and the Irish Potato Famine before beginning Gods of Gotham? What new things did you learn? What surprised you?
  • What do you think the title The Gods of Gotham refers to? Do you think it is a good title for the book?
  • Do you agree with the ways that Tim defines justice at the end of the book? Would you have made different decisions? Why do you think he took the routes he takes?
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55 comments to BOOK CLUB – Gods of Gotham by Lyndsay Faye

  • I totally loved Gods of Gotham, everything worked for me: the language, the mystery (although I did figure it out slightly before it was revealed), and the history. I thought that Faye did a particularly good job incorporating the slang; she managed to explain things or use them in good enough context that you could understand them without actually being obvious with explanations.

    I definitely would have read this without BOOK CLUB, it hit a lot of sweet spots for me: the historical fiction, I loved Faye’s debut Dust and Shadows, and Gods is published by Amy Einhorn, whom I adore.

    The mid-19th century really isn’t my period, so all I knew about the Potato Famine is that it happened and it caused many Irish citizens to emigrate, including a large number to the United States. Other than that, I’ve seen the movie of Gangs of New York, and that’s about it, so Gods was very informative.

    That’s my background with the book, but since I’m the host I’ll save my answers for the rest of the questions until some more people have a chance to weigh in!

    • I loved the use of slang – I’m always hesitant when I see that in books. Some authors use it well and artfully, others let it take over and muddle the story/character development. The glossary was helpful, but I felt the terms weren’t overwhelming when they appeared in the text.

  • 1) Oh my god, I loved it so! Like you, I thought everything came together perfectly. The language was particularly fascinating, especially when it became a sort of hybrid of flash, British-isms, and our own idioms. And I loved the historical element, and the mystery was very intriguing, almost Ripper-esque.

    2) Yes! In fact, it was in my reserve queue at my library until I learned I’d won a copy.

    3) I knew a bit about 19th century New York, being a native myself, and quite a bit more about the Potato Famine because I wrote a paper on it in college and visited Ireland last year. I didn’t know a lot about the beginnings of the NYPD, though, so that was extremely fascinating. I think what surprised me most was the vehemence with which the Nativists greeted the police force—we’re so used to them nowadays that the last thought in our minds would be “standing army.” I was also surprised that these officers were only appointed for one year, and that they were primarily established for the prevention of crime rather than the investigation of crimes already committed.

    4) I think the title can refer to any number of things, but in my mind, it really rings true of the politicians who clearly ran the city at that time. I would say it could refer to the copper stars, but they’re more like the Saviors of Gotham, right?
    I like the title. It made me want to know more about the book and gave a good sense of the time period.

    5) I’m a little divided on this one. On the one hand, there’s the whole “who made you God” element (ooh, maybe another meaning for the title?) that makes me question the decisions Tim made. Nowadays, he’d probably get in trouble and we’d see his fall from grace dramatized on an episode of Law & Order. But in my heart of hearts, I was glad he did what he did because it was in keeping with the decency he exhibited throughout the book, and the whole system was so new that it wasn’t too hard to accept what happened.

    Thanks for hosting the giveaway and the book club. This was such a great read!

  • I really, really loved this one. I found it atmospheric and very well written. I probably would have eventually picked this one up, but having the book club made me do it sooner rather than later.

    I knew quite a bit about the Irish Potato Famine, but almost nothing about the NYC police and how they started. I was surprised by how loosely they were formed. I also found it interesting as to how they were perceived (and how that parallels how they are viewed today).

    I assumed The Gods of Gotham were the cops and at the end Tim plays God a bit…I do think this was a good title.

    I loved the twist at the end because I really didn’t see it coming. I thought to prosecute would have been ridiculous given what the greater good was…and yet, there did not seem to be much justice for all those kids. I don’t think protecting Mercy’s father was justified…I really would have liked for people to see him for who he was.

    • I really wanted to see him prosecuted as well Wendy. I think it was one of those things where love interfered with judgment and what was right. Mercy was always going to leave town and she knew what her father did. He really didn’t spare her much.

      I thought the title was a play on many things. The new police force, but also the religious factions that were duking it out for control of New York as well.

      • I agree about love clouding Tim’s judgment. It made his final realization that she never really cared for him even worse.

        • Were you rooting for his relationship with Mercy? Despite all her good deeds, I wasn’t really impressed by her. She seemed so cold to me. I immediately wanted him to have a thing with the lady at the boarding house, so when they went on to share a child, in a sense, and the love of Mercy’s stories, I was glad. I wouldn’t be surprised or displeased if more didn’t come out of their relationship.

          • I was initially, but by the end I was only disappointed because he was so disappointed and disillusioned. I agree, I ended up feeling more for his landlady.

            • Never getting a straight answer out of her was a pain as well. He might have been intrigued by all her questions and weird answers, but me, not so much.

          • I wasn’t that fond of Mercy, either. I, too, was really hoping that he’d hit it off with the woman he rented the room from. She seemed wonderful. I was actually kind of surprised that they didn’t have a deeper relationship by the end of the book. I want to say that it’s hard to understand why he would stay so madly in love with someone who didn’t reciprocate that for him, buuuut… been there, done that. Hahaha!

            • Haha. Right.We definitely knew where he was coming from!

            • There’s a sequel coming, so there’s still time for him and the landlady!

              • Oooo… nice! I’m definitely looking forward to the sequel!

              • I also didn’t like Mercy all that much. She seemed so manipulative, and like someone else mentioned, all this never answering questions business made me angry. I had thought for sure there would be something between Tim and the landlady, and was a bit disappointed that it didn’t happen. But the news of a sequel is wonderful!

                • I will join the rest of you in saying Mercy was not my favorite. I was never wanting them to get together – I could tell she wasn’t interested in him and yet she seemed to string him along.

          • Lyndsay says that Mrs. Boehm gets lots of page time in the sequel, “you never know what might happen!” she says.

            • I was actually happy that the end wasn’t wrapped up neatly with either Mrs. Boehm or Mercy. I like it when authors resist that happily ever after pull. Even without a potential sequel:)
              Although I can see the impatience with Mercy and her questions, and Tim’s folly in worshipping her, I also appreciated that Mercy’s difficult situation was made clear to Tim. That a woman has desires, too, but a “ruined” woman has very few choices open to her.

              • Karen, I liked that twist in the story a whole bunch and that Mercy took such a creative approach in pursuing her sexual pleasure, even though it was all rather dubious.

                • Why did you think it was dubious? The whole subject of female sexuality in past eras is so unknown to us, it seems. What DID women do who weren’t either wives or whores?

      • I’m not sure that Reverend Underhill would have gotten the punishment he deserved even if he had been prosecuted. He killed a poor Irish child at a time when those children could disappear without anyone noticing. The justice system was very different back then–I’m sure the other Protestant citizens would have rallied around him.

        As far as the doctor goes, he really did nothing wrong. The children he performed autopsies on were already dead.

        • I agree, Heather, that the doctor did nothing wrong…BUT, Silkie apparently hastened some of those kids’ departure so she could make money from the autopsies, right? As far as Underhill went – I don’t know if people would have turned away from what he did. The fact that he nailed this kid up in a church was pretty gruesome and I think many people would have been appalled to learn it was a minister who did it. But, then, maybe I am thinking in modern terms here!

    • Oh, and Silkie Marsh needed to get some greater punishment than handing over some money. She’s the only one who I feel really needed to head to the slammer for a long time.

  • The strong connection between the famine and the police force was really interesting for me, particularly the political component. When I read the book description I assumed that the connection had more to do with crime accompanying a huge flood of new people, I would never have thought about the political machine wanting to protect new potential voters!

  • I’m only about half-way through the book (I got it a bit later than most of the rest of you), but I’m really loving it so far! It took me about 20 pages to get the feel for the language, but once I’d descended into Timothy Wilde’s narration, the story took hold and we were off to the races!

    I’m not sure if I would have read it if it weren’t for the book club. I absolutely love the cover and I think the premise is exciting, so that might have interested me. It’s hard to say. really. I was certainly aware of the book and it looked interesting enough that I definitely wanted to participate in the book club.

    I didn’t know much about the Potato Famine, other than it happened and caused a massive Irish immigration to the United States. I grew up near Boston, where Irish pride is pretty fierce so it was a bit of a surprise to me to read about how hated they were by the “Nativists” and how they essentially lived in squalor. I also didn’t know that might about New York in the 19th century. I found the story of the the first police force – the copper stars – very interesting, especially that it was so controversial!

    Overall I love the writing and the characters. I feel like the Wilde brothers are such great characters and I can’t wait to see how it all turns out!

  • If anyone has any questions for Lyndsay, she’s waiting on Twitter, I’d be happy to take them to her.

  • Oh man, I loved this book! I most likely wouldn’t have even considered reading it if not for book club, because the premise doesn’t really do justice to what’s between the covers. It was just such a great read that straddled a lot of different genres. I am a big historical fiction fan, but had thought that this book would lean more heavily on the mystery aspects, and less on the historical ones. I was pleased to find that they shared the space equally.

    The characters were also really well developed, and believable which is something that I enjoyed as well. I didn’t know much about the two major historical points of this time period and how they converged before reading this book, and I really felt like I learned a lot while I was reading. It was definitely entertaining, and I had a hard time putting it down, but on a deeper level, the story was really powerful and resonant. The book had a great ratio of twists and suspense to historical relevance, and I think my family was a little annoyed that I had my nose stuck in the book for hours on end.

    I also liked the use of flash and the way that Faye used the words in contexts that made them understandable without having to repeatedly flip back to the glossary in front. There is really so much to love about this book and the moral conundrums of it’s characters was really interesting to watch. I agree with Farin that because of the relative newness of the police force, sometimes the moral and ethical lines were a little muted and gray, but I think that Tim was really operating on a personal set of ethics, and the thing about it was that since I had spent so much time with him in the narrative, and gotten to really know him as a man, I understood his brand of justice and even commended him for it. A lot to think about for sure.

    I think the title was perfect, and it could refer to the copper stars or the people behind the scenes who were manipulating the political outcomes. People like Tim’s brother, and George Washington Matsell. If you are thinking obliquely, it could even refer to the people who were busy doing evil deeds. I guess it’s just a matter of perspective, but I definitely think the title fits.

    I am sort of worried that this book will be overlooked and fly under the radar, which would be terrible because it was just such an engrossing read, and I think more people should be reading it.

    Thanks so much for giving me the opportunity to participate in this book club event!

  • So, one interpretation of the title that I haven’t seen so far is the God if the Protestant natives, versus that of the Catholic immigrants, and how those religious differences were used as a frame for hatred. How does your understanding of the title (religious, copper stars, politicians) influence your reading of the book (or how did your reading influence which meaning of the title you subscribe to)?

    • I agree, Jen, I think the title could also be a statement about the conflict between Protestants and Catholics.

      I don’t always “register” titles when I start a book – although I do look for quotes that allude to the title as I’m reading…so the title didn’t really influence my reading.

      That said, I appreciated the title AFTER reading the book. I think any or all of the points that people are making are legitimate: people playing “God,” the politicians, the cops, the religious connotations, etc…

      My guess is that Faye meant there to be multiple meanings. Hey, that would be a good question for her on Twitter :)

      • It would be! I’ll have her add her two cents later this afternoon :)

      • I’m with Wendy. I don’t pay so much attention to titles (unless someone asks me about it :). As I said in my comments, the quotes in the chapter heads made me look at the whole book in terms of Protestant v. Catholic, but I also felt the struggle for supremacy between Tim and Valentine’s world views as well as the (unfortunately never ending and sad) political power struggle.

    • My interpretation of the title definitely changed as I read. I originally thought Gods of Gotham referred to the police, so I went in thinking the book would be about the copper stars and their defense of the city. By the end, though, I felt like the title referred more to the politicians and how they really pulled the strings. Although, you can argue that all three forces—politics, religion, and now the copper stars—ruled the city, and each force used the other as means to an end.

    • So, I asked Lyndsay about the interpretations of the title on Twitter and here’s what she had to say:

      From @LyndsayFaye

      Ah! @DevourerofBooks THE GODS OF GOTHAM, for me, is essentially a threefer or 3 for 1 title. Here goes…
      First, GODS is the literal battle between the Catholic and Protestant Gods for the soul of NYC, according to believers.
      Next, GODS is Timothy and Valentine, who are both polar opposite heroes and symbolic of the fledgling copper star force.
      And finally, GODS is the invisible but godlike “Party,” always capitalized, never seen in person, but pulling the strings.

  • I’m curious about how people felt about Tim’s reaction to what he found out about Valentine. It turns out that he was trying to make up for/ feeling guilty about very different demons than the ones that Tim saddled him with. Tim was resentful because he didn’t want to lose more family, and he thought Valentine reckless, but when he finds out the real cause of the fire he has no reaction. He clearly wants his brother in his life, but how do you think this will affect them in the future? And did it change the way you viewed Valentine?

    • Good questions, Nicole.

      I liked this part of the story. There is so much ambivalence between these brothers – sort of a love-hate relationship and the revelation about the fire helped explain Val’s behavior (especially his abuse of drugs). I actually think the clarification will have a positive effect on their relationship. At least now Tim knows why Val acts as he does. It was an accident which he has carried guilt about for his whole life.

      I found that I like Valentine more after knowing the real story – up until then I thought he was quite unlikable.

      • I agree with Wendy. I think that Val was unlikable in many ways, and at times, before the big reveal, I felt like he might be sinister. That was a great touch because Lyndsay had me suspicious of almost everyone at one time or another. I thought it was interesting that when Val admitted his role in the fire, it almost seemed like a balm on Tim’s heart, and made him look at his brother in a very different way. I can’t help but feel that a little more communication on both of their parts would have drastically altered the anger that Tim felt for Val, but knowing how it all turns out, I think it was wise for Lyndsay to play it like she did.

        At times it was hard for me to understand Tim’s reactions to his brother because Val basically saved him from living the life of a street urchin, and I felt like that should have held more weight with him, but then again, Val was living a very debauched life, and it was the opposite of Tim’s so there was legitimate tension there. I think that there was very little respect between the brothers until Val really opens up, but underneath all that anger, there was love.

        • Agree that there was something sinister about Val. When Tim thought Val might have something to do with the dead children, I could absolutely believe it. It was a huge relief when they finally just stopped for a second and listened to each other.

        • The relationship between the brothers was definitely one of the most intriguing aspects of the book for me. I forget how big the age difference is now, but I don’t remember it being so great that I didn’t think of them as just two children who were doing the best they could to make a living after their parent’s death. Once I started to connect Tim’s anger at Valentine to that looming potential loss of his brother, it was easier to understand, and a nice twist. Before that, I wondered where it was coming from. Val is by no means a role model, but I didn’t get where all the hate was coming from.

          • Although, I think it is natural for that level of sibling rivalry and ambivalence in the absence of parents. Val essentially raised Tim…and he was the guy who seemed to always get what he wanted despite his poor moral choices…so the resentment from Tim, I think, was natural. I also think that they really loved each other too…but they were so different from each other as well.

    • I found this really interesting, especially since we just read Forgotten Country, which also dealt with a huge misunderstanding between siblings. I think it’s good that Tim and Valentine came to some sort of truce at the end of the book, because I could tell that it was breaking Tim’s heart to have to hate his brother so much. I definitely felt differently about Valentine after finding out what he real motives as a fireman were.

    • A little additional insight from Lyndsay, this time on the relationship between Tim and Val:
      “For instance, countless seemingly sarcastic lines on Val’s part toward Tim are on second reading honest compliments that Tim completely misreads.”

      • Except for the relationship between Bird and Tim, the brother relationship was the most compelling to me (Tim’s infatuation with Mercy came from such an immature place that it didn’t hold my attention). I had to read over the scene a couple times where Val reveals his guilt over the fire to Tim. But then I got Tim’s strange logic that he was able to let go of his rage. Val wasn’t trying to kill himself and leave Tim with no one, he was trying to assuage his own guilt for the stupid accident that led to the death of his parents. And, as Lyndsay says, it’s interesting how actions and words are colored by POV. Tim forgot all the wonderful things Val did for him when they were kids, until he was able to let go of the rage. Their inability to communicate was completely believable – they were children raising themselves, and BOYS! Those beings can’t communicate worth squat! I, too, was glad that Val turned out to have a good heart (though I suspected it all along – his many addictions seemed to come from a place of deep hurt, not from a place of evil).

  • I really enjoyed this book, although I had the mystery figured out very early on. That didn’t ruin it for me at all, though, because I loved the storyline even without the mystery aspect of it.

    I knew about the potato famine and the influx of immigrants to NYC before reading this, but I did NOT know about the founding of the NYPD, so that part was very interesting to me.

    I saw the title as referring to the two different religions in the city–Catholicism and Protestantism–and their constant battles. It also could very well refer to everyone in the city who was taking it upon him/herself to “play God,” if you will–Silkie Marsh hurrying along the deaths of some of the children in order to make more money, Reverend Underhill awful deed in the name of his religion, Tim’s decisions at the end of the book, the police force, etc.

    Honestly, I liked the way Tim handled things at the end. The justice system was very different back then, and I’m not sure Underhill would have gotten the punishment he deserved, anyway. As far as the doctor is concerned, I don’t feel that he was doing anything wrong (as long as he was innocent to the fact that Silkie was helping some of the children’s deaths along).

    With all of the other books I have on my TBR pile, I don’t know if I would have picked this book up on my own, so I’m glad it was a BOOK CLUB selection. I really enjoyed reading about the history in NYC at that time and I enjoyed the story very much.

  • I’m not completely done yet, but so far I’m really loving the book! I’m not a huge nineteenth century buff when it comes to Irish immigrants in New York. In fact, my first encounter was with Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York. However, I felt like Faye really integrated me as a reader into this world and mindset. As I posted earlier (just a few seconds ago!), I appreciated the use of slang. It wasn’t overwhelming and it didn’t detract from the story. I didn’t feel like I was spending my time puzzling over what the author was trying to have the characters say. It kind of anchored me into this world.

  • My impressions before reading the book were pretty vague. I knew it sounded interesting, but I didn’t know THAT much about it. After reading it however, I have to admit to loving it. It was gritty and hard to read at times, but fascinating.

    No! I wouldn’t have picked it up! I am so glad that I did! I think that Lyndsay Faye did a great job with this book. I’m not a huge historical fiction fan, but this had me completely hooked!

    Absolutely nothing. I know so very little about this period of history that it’s pitiful. I was surprised by how much of a divide there was between “natives” and the immigrants. I knew that there was a LOT of tension but I didn’t know it was that horrible back then. I guess I’ve been completely ignorant. Which makes me sad and hungry to learn more.

    The ending left me a little sad though. I have to admit. I mean it was a twist I wasn’t expecting and that’s great. I love being surprised at endings, but I was a bit shocked. I don’t know if I could consider what happened justice. I think in a way it fit. Like someone above said, it kept with Tim’s character. I just am not sure how to take it.

    • I don’t know if I would have picked it up, either! It certainly is intriguing, but I don’t always go for historical fiction set in this time period. I’m really glad it was a Book Club pick because I’ve enjoyed it so much :)

  • Oh, I LOVED this book! Such a surprise how much I loved it. Will take me some time to sort through all the responses of today (was working in a studio all day so I couldn’t check in earlier).
    But I wanted to share this link, as I heard Lyndsay Faye in this NPR segment on the way home from work! She sounds SO young which really surprised me.

    • Great find, Karen! I’ve only read one of those books (The City & The City), but I loved it. I think Lyndsay is fairly young – at least based on the picture in her Twitter profile – but already such a brilliant writer!

  • OK, here are my answers to the questions:
    1) I was so surprised by this book and by how much I loved it. I am not one who generally seeks out mysteries, but I do love historical fiction. But what really captured me about this book was what a natural poet Tim was, and how well Faye created the world through his eyes. I fell in love with Tim and Bird almost immediately. With his ability to see people and situations with clarity and beauty, and with her strength and courage in horrific circumstances.

    2) Not sure if I would have read the book otherwise. Was not familiar with the writer, nor was the book on my radar before book club.

    3) I didn’t know a lot about NYC during this period. More about Boston, actually. I loved how she really immersed us in how life was lived at the time, the challenges and hard work of day to day life. The smells and disgusting detritus of life in the city (though that’s still pretty bad!). I had never thought that cities didn’t have a police force. It was a tiny bit forced to me that Tim was sort of creating the role of the detective with Matsell as his mentor, but it was fascinating to see how the copper stars had to battle for their right to be there.
    4) I went with a pretty literal interpretation on the title, led by the quotes at each chapter head. I thought it was about the battle for supremacy between the Protestant and Catholic churches, where, as usual, there were “good guys” and “bad guys” on both sides of the aisle.
    5) I have to say that I totally did not see the resolution coming, and I like how he peeled away the onion of responsibility. And because there were layers and layers of responsibility for the many crimes (not just the murders, but the prostitution of the children in the first place, as well as the political and moral corruption that supported the brothels), I did support Tim in his actions. I do wonder if exposing Mercy’s father (especially as he tried to frame the priest) would have created good, in exposing the dangers of self-righteousness, or, if in that situation, it would have just created more violence. And I think that while Tim may have been somewhat warped in his thinking by his love of Mercy (there’s a play on words), he was really doing his best to do the right thing.

  • […] the author! I read this book recently and loved it (read my review) as did the other participants over at BOOK CLUB. Check out their reviews:  Beachreader, Between the Covers, Devourer of Books, Linus’s Blanket, […]