22. Ragtime (1975)
Author: E.L. Doctorow
Areas Featured: Lower East Side, Flatiron
The complicated classic takes place during the rush to the First World War, and involves an upper-class family who has made their fortune selling flags and fireworks to a patriotic and frenzied America. Everything is thrown into confusion by the arrival of an abandoned black child and her troubled mother. And then there's the smartly dressed Coalhouse Walker, the child's alleged father, who wins over the family with his ability to play ragtime on their out-of-tune piano. Then there's the struggling Jewish family approached by high society because of the beauty of their daughter.
The three families encounter each other on a battlefield populated by Harry Houdini, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Sigmund Freud, Theodore Dreiser, and Robert Peary, just to name a few. The fantastical use of historical figures and the amorphous narrator give the book a dose of magic that allows it to be New York, both in legend and in reality. —GT