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The Great Mistake

Best Seller
The Great Mistake by Jonathan Lee
Hardcover $26.95
Jun 15, 2021 | ISBN 9780525658498

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  • Jun 15, 2021 | ISBN 9780525658498

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The Great Mistake is a great New York story…Green lived a life—and Lee does it appropriately epic justice.” Entertainment Weekly

“The best American novel of the year is by a Brit…The Great Mistake is a book of extraordinary intelligence and style…It’s as if Lee has distilled more than a century of American letters into a single book. There’s Fitzgerald, of course—The Great Gatsby is echoed in more than just the novel’s title. There’s Hemingway in the muscular lyricism of the prose; Sherwood Anderson and Steinbeck in the beautifully drawn portraits of rural America; there’s the restraint of Henry James in the sinuous sentences.” —The Guardian

“Jonathan Lee’s wily, virtuosic, very beautiful new novel is an intimate portrait of a public man that also serves as an X-ray of America. The Great Mistake is a great novel of New York, in which the shaping of public space becomes inextricable from the loneliness, longing, and ferocious ambition of a single, damaged man.” —Garth Greenwell, author of What Belongs to You
“Seriously entertaining…The detective work is ingenious…This may be historical fiction, but Jonathan Lee makes his own rules…I wish there were more novels like it.” —The Sunday Times (London)

“Engrossing . . . Genuinely impressive . . . Lee is an excellent sketcher of character, setter of scene, and weaver of research . . . None of Lee’s sentences is soulless. They brim with life and music and filigree-fine craft.”—The Wall Street Journal

“Jonathan Lee is so enviably talented it leaves the reader breathless. The Great Mistake is an unparalleled feat of elegance and craftsmanship. Lee’s 19th-century New York City is riveting, immersive, but best of all, it’s an immaculate blend of scale: he masters both the grand historic narratives and gritty intimate details. As envisioned by Lee, the life of Green feels emblematic of the New York City he built: ambitious, fraught, thrilling, and ultimately visionary.” —Stephanie Danler, author of Sweetbitter

“Rich and riveting…A triumph of humane historical portraiture, and one of the finest and most pleasurable New York novels I have ever read.” LitHub

“Few writers working today have Jonathan Lee’s range or eye for detail. Fewer still are capable of roaming minds and histories with such bittersweet, richly detailed ease, or taking on with such profound depth all the messy, hilarious, heartbreaking humanity of a person, and a time, and indeed an entire city. The Great Mistake is a wonder and a delight.” —Téa Obreht, author of The Tiger’s Wife

“A wonderful, compelling, finely-tuned and deeply loveable novel, with a central character who is all of those things too. Jonathan Lee has taken the bare facts of a nearly-forgotten life and turned them into a rich and unforgettable story, told with a relish for language and voice. Mr. Andrew Haswell Green now has permanent lodgings in my brain, and very welcome he is too.” —Jon McGregor, author of Reservoir 13

“An exceptional work of historical fiction about one of the key figures in the development of 19th-century New York City…A highly satisfying mix of mystery and character portrait, revealing the constrained heart beneath the public carapace.”—Kirkus Reviews (starred)

“Audacious…Lee sustains a captivating strangeness in his depiction of the period.”Publishers Weekly

The Great Mistake is a great novel of 19th-century New York and the meaning of success, which makes the quietest moments of its hero’s life as memorable as the bordellos and the murders. A magical escape from the 21st century that sent me back feeling wiser and more hopeful.” —Sandra Newman, author of The Heavens
“Like Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams and John Williams’ Stoner, Jonathan Lee peels back a forgotten layer of history to investigate longing and loneliness in the shape of a single man. The Great Mistake joins the ranks of Sarah Perry’s novels, and Colm Tóibín’s The Master, in lighting up the past, recreating Old New York—like Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill—with an exuberance that transcends mere history. It is a remarkable book, a herculean construction that will prove lasting.” —Katy Simpson Smith, author of The Everlasting

“A stunning new novel.” The Times (London)

“Captivating…Lee takes the murder as a jumping off point, diving into Green’s interior life with tremendous skill, telling an unforgettable story about the parallel construction of an identity and a metropolis.” CrimeReads

“Lushly detailed…Vividly realized…Lee sparkle[s] as a novelist.” Booklist

“Unforgettable . . . Many could write a meaningful biography about Andrew Haswell Green and his achievements. But what Lee has done is far greater, by creating a novel that lives in that ineffable space where what was—at least what was on record—lives alongside what might have been, through a captivating Circe-like writing style . . . Lee’s Green is beautifully and fully rendered as if he is channeling him through the veil of time . . . It would be easy to recommend The Great Mistake for its confident, well-researched, and impeccably crafted take on a singular individual who had so much to do with the creation of New York City as we know it. But you should really read this book for Lee’s exquisite prose, his poetic shadings of a life and a time in which so much was possible.”—Chicago Review of Books

“A big, delightful look at money, power, and the painstaking work of changing the world.”—Town & Country

“Give this entrancing story of an exceptional man to novel-reading fans of Erik Larson and those who enjoy a little mystery with their historical fiction.”—Library Journal

Author Q&A

How did you first learn about Andrew Haswell Green?
Like the ghostly narrator you can glimpse occasionally in my book, I was walking in Central Park one day in the summer of 2012 with a sandwich in my pocket. I wasn’t in the mood for discovering stories. In fact I was probably trying to clear my head of them. But stories have a way of breaking in anyway. After climbing the Great Hill I took a path through Glen Span Arch and along Montayne’s Rivulet, then spotted some shady stone steps I hadn’t seen before, ascending through elms. At the top, overlooking the open greenery of Fort Fish, there was a marble memorial bench dedicated to “Andrew Haswell Green, Father of Greater New York and Creating Genius of Central Park.” I got curious about who he was. And why I hadn’t heard of him before.
To what extent has your understanding or experience of New York City changed after learning more about his life?
Without Green there might be no Central Park, no Metropolitan Museum of Art, no New York Public Library, no Bronx Zoo, and also no merger with Brooklyn. The whole city and its history could be vastly different, and once you know that, it adds a certain uncanniness to your experience of walking through Manhattan or Brooklyn— you start to visualize ghost versions of the city, like seeing mostly-erased tracings on paper. Learning about Green’s life also made me think about public space and how we value it — a topic many of us are considering afresh when we picture the post-pandemic future of New York and other cities. There is a moment in E.B. White’s Here is New York when he writes: “On any person who desires such queer prizes, New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy.” I find I think about that all the time now, after researching Green’s life and work: how privacy can be both a benefaction and a curse. 
You open one chapter, “Is it foolish to talk of turning points? Days in a life that set a person on a course they cannot alter, or which lock them into a position from which they might never move?” Did you experience any turning points while writing? Come across any research or information about Green’s life that altered the course of the novel?
One turning point was discovering accounts of Green’s life as a teenager, long before he was famous. He was working endless hours as an apprentice boy in a general store, struggling to get by, and missing home. His hopelessness really struck me — it was clear he felt there was nothing to live for. It is a good reminder that none of us can read the future, especially our own. (Only one person in The Great Mistake, my beloved Mrs. Bray, Green’s eventual housekeeper, believes she can see the future — but even then, not her own.) 
Why did you decide to begin the book at the end, to open the narrative with the last attempt on Green’s life?
The very first thing I discovered about Green when I began researching this book — my own attempt on his life — was that he was shot dead on Park Avenue at the age of 83, in an apparently motiveless crime. So his death came first for me, and life came breaking in behind it. Plus it’s a book about fate. So his ending, it seemed to me, should feel fated in the structure of the text. It’s a chronicle of a death foretold, and a life forgotten. And as it progresses, the book moves back and forth between the end of Green’s life and its start, which you might notice is how Green reads books as a young man — flicking between the first pages of a story and the last, until he can guess at what happens in the middle. (I don’t recommend this as a method! But I liked writing a book with a shape that might accommodate his own special way of reading.) 
What do you think are the biggest challenges of writing historical fiction?
I think the challenges of historical fiction are mini versions of the challenges faced by history itself? Which elements of a story to center and which corners to sweep clean. How to respect the facts but leave room for creativity and doubt. You could say that a historical novel is fiction, and that contemporaneous newspaper accounts are factual. But in various newspaper accounts of Green’s murder in 1903, sometimes it is raining when the trigger is pulled, sometimes it’s overcast, and sometimes it is sunny. How to grapple with that? You could pretend the uncertainty is not there. Or you could make it part of your subject, and try to find ways to bring history’s own delicious capriciousness into your accounting of it.
What do you hope readers take away from The Great Mistake?
I hope the novel raises questions about how we build our own lives and stories, and the stories of our cities and their public spaces. And I’d love it if, after reading my book, some others are inspired to visit that bench dedicated to Andrew Green in Central Park, and imagine their own versions of his ghost.

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