I read this book partly because I'm researching a book of my own that takes place partly in 1892--ten years after the 1882 of this book, but still, I didn't have any 1880s information at all. Turns out, Finney infamously uber-researched for this book. In fact, it seems that the sole reason he wrote this book is to simply describe 1882 until it felt like he lived there.
This he does. If you're at all interested in the past--and the 1880s in particular--you should read this book. If you live in New York City and want to know how Broadway and Fifth Avenue and the many buildings constructed in that time became alive in their own right, and then grew into the life's fabric of the city, you should read this book. If you're even a little bit a traveler or an explorer at heart--if you're even a little curious or interested in history and people at all--you should read this book. And if you think it's interesting to understand the people of the era--the actual, flesh-and-blood people of a time--more than just the important historical facts themselves (as I do), then you should read this book.
In short, this was quite a little pleasure, a rare, quaint joy that reading should bring but often does not, even when reading a good or important book. This gets you away. Not just into 1882 NYC, but the mid- to late-Victorian Era of your own town and city. Have you ever wondered what it was like in 1882 where you are? This book may give you an idea. Chances are, it was like this, just maybe on a lesser scale.
But the air was clean and the people were evidently a little more carefree than the early pictures would have us believe. There were horses and sleighs everywhere; children played outside, even in the winter. There were no screens to enslave us, no computers to weigh us down. People awoke early, at sunrise, and went to bed just after sundown. There were telegraph wires everywhere, like electric wires today, so the landscape wasn't as bare as you might think. The el rattled the city, and electric trains shouldered aside horse-drawn carriages and coaches. Everyone walked, and people probably spent more time with each other.
This is romanticized history, of course. You won't see how the very poor live here; in fact, the author just barely refers to them at all. Most of the action takes place in the richer Broadway, Fifth Avenue part of Manhattan. There aren't minorities here, either--these things, and the way Finney handles female characters, make the book seem a little less sophisticated than what we may be used to today. They aren't jarring, and they aren't what this particular story is about, but there it is nonetheless.
It was written by the guy who wrote the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers (that was the other reason I wanted to read this), so there's a slight sci-fi aspect here, but it is very slight. This is more historical fiction than it is science fiction. It's a bit of fantasy, too, if you think of 1882 NYC as another world, which it sort of is.
My favorite thing about this book (and books like it) is the sense of wonder that it instills in the reader. Finney clearly was enjoying himself as he wrote this, and the writing and tone exude a sense of wonder that he himself must have been feeling while writing this. You get the feeling that if Finney has the chance to walk into 1882 NYC and to stay there, he would have as well.
Would you want to stay in the 1882 of your own place?