Jonathan Lee: The Big Mistake – Book Review

A historical novel about a forgotten hero of an American city? Ironically, Briton Jonathan Lee takes on the task – and with “The Big Mistake” presents one of spring’s most exciting books.

While walking through Central Park, Jonathan Lee stumbled upon a marble bench engraved with a name and dedication. Some words are obscured by pigeon shit, and yet Lee can write the inscription: “In honor of Andrew Haswell Green / Creator of Central Park in his early years / Father of Greater New York.” Although Lee, who grew up in London, has lived in the American capital for several years, working for a publishing company and writing both novels and screenplays, he had never heard of Andrew Haswell Green before.

He began researching and discovered that the attorney and urban planner had not only created Central Park, the New York Public Library, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but had been instrumental in integrating Manhattan and Brooklyn into one city. In addition, the circumstances of his death are ambiguous: at the age of 83, Green was shot dead in front of his home on November 13, 1903. The killer can be arrested, but the motive for his crime remains unclear for a long time.

Extensive research was conducted by Jonathan Lee, who was allowed to read Andrew Haswell Green’s unpublished memoirs and letters in the Historical Society’s Library—and after eight years of his career the novel was completed. In The Big Mistake, he clings to historical truth, and when he imagines minor characters like Inspector McCluskey or Greene’s housekeeper, Mrs. Bray, these characters are at least footnotes to official documents.

But when Lee repeatedly works in time leaps, tells stories from shifting perspectives and titles individual chapters with the names of the various entrances to Central Park, it’s not the criminal case that makes his novel so exciting. With detailed descriptions and sensual language, he makes New York at the time tangible, and above all sketches a sharp psychological outline of his tragic hero.

In The Big Mistake, Jonathan Lee portrays a hero who lived for his work, and who did so much for New York – and whose love he could never live out.

Green grew up as seventh of eleven children on a Massachusetts farm that had seen better days. Early on, the boy’s simple sense of order aroused his father’s suspicions, and when Green was seen trying to kiss his best and only friend, he was sent for apprenticeship at a New York general store.

When young lawyer Samuel Tilden appears at the store one day, Green is able to free himself from poor living conditions: Tilden becomes Green’s teacher, takes him to the library and introduces him to the world of books. But fearing rumors and gossip, Tilden ended this intense friendship from one day to the next, and even when they meet again after years and together launch such groundbreaking projects as founding a public library, they still show their mutual reciprocity. Affection never, so as not to jeopardize their work for the betterment of society.

“Can’t our own loneliness, our worst fear, drive us to the better, the social? To build bridges, public spaces, and safe places where others might feel less alone?” (The Big Mistake)

Jonathan Lee paints a hero who lived for his work, and who has done so much for New York – and could never live out his love. “The protagonist in ‘The Big Mistake’ believes that we live in a world that is sometimes obsessed at our expense with the individual versus the group, the private versus the public interest, the selfish versus the unselfish, the short versus the long. Through his account, he bows to a character who works against this Philosophy, represented by Donald Trump, Boris Johnson and Vladimir Putin.

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