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City of Light Paperback – August 26, 2003


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 503 pages
  • Publisher: Delta (August 26, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385337647
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385337649
  • Product Dimensions: 8.2 x 5.3 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (217 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #98,337 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

City of Light is quite simply electrifying. Not that there's anything simple about this rich novel, which is first and foremost an examination of illusion, invisibility, and power--physical and personal. Set in the spring of 1901, as preparations for the Pan-American Exposition would seem to promise Buffalo, New York, a permanent place in the world, Lauren Belfer's book is narrated by the never-married headmistress of a fashionable girls' school. At 36, Louisa Barrett does her best to free her charges from their societal shackles. "I'm rather ashamed of all the things I've been able to give my students through the subterfuge of training them to be better wives," she says proudly. What Louisa is most concerned about, however, is her 9-year-old goddaughter, Grace Sinclair, who has grown increasingly unstable since her mother's sudden death. Meanwhile, Grace's father is heading up Buffalo's hydroelectric power plans with dangerous zeal--much to the chagrin of local conservationists who oppose any exploitation of Niagara Falls. Will Tom's intensity, which smacks of fanaticism, extend so far as murder?

But this offers only the barest idea of Belfer's complex grid. In 500 fast pages, she creates a fascinating, disquieting world in which nothing is what it seems. As Louisa battles against her instinct for self-preservation, her past--particularly a vile encounter with the corpulent Grover Cleveland--threatens to undermine her carefully created persona and loose her greatest secret. Looking back on the events of 1901 from the safety (and disappointment) of 1909, Louisa is the most astringent and intriguing of narrators. To Lauren Belfer's endless credit, City of Light is panoramic, subtle, and very physical. In her first novel, she makes us feel the rush of water, the thrill of light, the snap, crackle, and pop of social tension, and--alas for Louisa--the despair of tragic inevitability. --Sophie Atherton --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

A gift for social nuance and for authoritatively controlled narration shapes this compelling debut, which sets one young woman's extraordinary fate against the backdrop of the political struggles over the burgeoning electric industry as it began to harness the power of Niagara Falls at the turn of this century. Louisa Barrett, headmistress of a prestigious girls' seminary in Buffalo, N.Y., operates in the city's social circles with a freedom generally not accorded to other women. People assume her to be "without passion or experience," she observes, and she proceeds to tell her story with the clarity and restraint of a Jane Austen heroine. Louisa gradually reveals the great secret and sorrow of her life: having been raped by a high-powered politician (readers will gasp at the implications of his identity), Louisa secretly gave birth to a daughter nine years earlier, and arranged for the baby's adoption by her best friend, Margaret Sinclair, who has recently died. When Louisa visits her daughter Grace's father, Tom Sinclair, the idealistic businessman spearheading the building of the newest powerhouse at the Falls, she overhears an exchange between Tom and a famous engineer that arouses suspicion when the first of two murders of power company engineers occurs soon afterward. The city is embroiled in a battle between environmental preservationists protesting the diversion of Niagara's waters, and industrialists inspired by the benefits of electricity, and Louisa begins to understand the desperate measures to which each side will resort. Meanwhile, she is poised for a time to choose between two men: a prominent reporter who falls in love with her, and Tom, marriage to whom would make her legally Grace's mother. Belfer's delineation of society's power structure, deftly portrayed in the controversy over the Falls and the city fathers' preparations for the Pan-American Exposition, undergird a many-layered zinger of a conclusion. The rich mix of fictional and historical figures includes a family from Buffalo's black middle class, presidents Cleveland and McKinley, and immigrant power-station workers who risk life and limb. With the assurance of an established writer, Belfer delivers a work of depth and polishAan unsentimentalized story complete with dangerous liaisons, gorgeous descriptions of the Falls and a central character whose voice is irresistible to the last page of her tragic story. $200,000 ad/promo; BOMC main selection; simultaneous BDD audio; author tour; foreign rights sold in U.K., Germany, Italy, France and Sweden. (May) FYI: Belfer has been selected for B&N's Discover New Writers program.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Customer Reviews

A book you can really get into and hate to see it end.
L. Engel
There was no profit in individual use, so there was no incentive for privately held utilities to provide it -- until the federal government developed TVA.
Betty Burks
Characters are developed well and the plot has an interesting twist.
Amazon Customer

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

50 of 53 people found the following review helpful By M. H. Bayliss on November 6, 2000
Format: Mass Market Paperback
I guess you could pick apart the writing and say that Belfer is not the most literary genius in the history of literature, but I have to confess that I could not put this book down. The plot was engrossing from start to finish -- I had to stay up till 2am to finish it which says something for her writing level. It's a combination of Jack Finney's Time and Again (in terms of the quality to recreate a city, in this case Buffalo, in the early 20th century) and Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day (a repressed narrator who manages to rationalize any hints of emotion).
Ms. Barret, the protagonist, narrator, and headmistress of the Macauley School in Buffalo (based on the Buffalo Seminary School for girls) leads us through the maze of her charges at school, her goddaughter, a murder mystery, the invention and propagation of electricity, etc... all against the backdrop of the falls (Niagra Falls, of course). We see everything through her eyes: the conventions of the day, the politics, the intrigue, the mystery. I didn't solve the central mysteries, but that's not to say other more mystery oriented readers might not. The point is that this novel is well paced, well rendered and extremely readable. Absorbing actually would be a better way to describe it. The characters are based in many cases on real historical characters. Once you read this book, I guarantee you'll never look at Grover Cleveland the same way.
It's hard to believe that this is the author's first novel. She weaves a well-researched and authentic tale that will keep you up late into the evening trying to tie together all the loose ends.
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29 of 31 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on January 20, 2000
Format: Hardcover
What I think a lot of the previous reviewers, particularly those who didn't like this book, miss is the fact that this is an HISTORICAL novel. It gives not only a picture of another time but also the feel of it: the difference in sensibility and expectations, the difference in writing style (what a pleasure to read something NOT influenced by television and the movies), the refreshing lack of the all-pervading irony we must live with. This novel is written in the form of a woman's memoirs, a woman who lived at the turn of the century. Naturally it would be written differently than what one would write now. Those who complain that the book moved too slowly shouldn't expect a fast-moving hard-boiled modern thriller. It isn't that kind of book. I loved it in the same way I loved "Ragtime" or "Voyage of the Narwhal" or "Kalimantaan" or "Lidie Newton" or "Cloudsplitter." And I was very impressed at Belfer's neat trick of keeping an essentially passive character--one who is acted upon rather than acts--continually interesting. Of course there are flaws. What first novel doesn't have one or two? But none are worth mentioning. I look forward to more from Lauren Belfer.
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19 of 21 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on January 8, 2001
Format: Hardcover
In Lauren Belfer's stunning first novel, powerful local families are used to dictating Buffalo's social and economic future, but by 1901 the city is spinning out of their control, thanks to the advent of the nation's first electric generating plant at Niagara Falls. An ambitious chief engineer wants the plant to produce free electricity for the masses rather than just make a profit selling electricity to factories -- and the city fathers (and investors) turn on him, as do anti-electricity preservationists fighting to protect the raging the beauty of the Falls. All is observed through the keen eyes of Louisa Barrett, headmistress of the local girl's school charged with educating the city's elite. "Miss Barrett" ends up in the middle of this power struggle, a keen observer as well as an increasingly skillful player in her own right. Small-town secrets and intrigue test her mettle, and she proves equal to every challenge.
This densely plotted novel captures the waning days of the Victorian era and the birth pangs of modern industrial America. The deft combination of personal stories, physical description, and details of industrial development, with real historical figures and events woven in, provides a satisfying picture of the brief time in which Buffalo was the most celebrated city in America. Belfer captures the essence of this city flush with wealth and a seemingly boundless future, and shows us how that future could not have possibly been sustained, how it contained the seeds of its own tragic ending.
The book has a particularly "Buffalo" resonance to me. Ghosts of the city's wealthy past are everywhere, from mansion-lined streets that now house nonprofits to shuttered factories that have sat vacant for 30 or more years.
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25 of 29 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on June 19, 2000
Format: Hardcover
I started reading City of Light with some misgivings, due to the over-enthusiastic flap copy. Almost immediately, it was easy to recognize the forced effort of an amateur-although Ms. Belfer has great promise. She needs several more efforts under her literary belt before she truly comes into her voice, her rhythm, her pacing, and her style. She also needs a far sharper editor, one who will encourage her to tighten up both her style and her plotting.
This novel was far too long, saying in over 500 pages what could have been more succinctly yet still beautifully written in about 300. The main culprit in this case was the meandering descriptions, similar to those found in 19th century novels.
There were too many plot twists and characters to make for easy remembering. The entire scenario regarding the power station lost me, quite frankly, in its rather dramatic devices. Too many characters spoil the storytelling broth.
As far as the mystery part of the book, let me simply say that sometimes less is more. And the "final answer" need not be quite so common! Characters can be neatly disposed of in more than one way.
The main character, Louisa Barrett, drove me nuts with her overly dramatic pronouncements, her sanctimony, and her spinelessness when it came to anyone else, or any other issue, than her Macauley girls. I stopped rooting for her less than a third of the way through.
The characterizations overall were interesting, however, and the view into lives other than those of the rich and white was very welcome. I adore anything to do with the turn of the century, and 1901 Buffalo was meticulously depicted, which rendered it quite real to me. Bravo on the exhaustive research done on that era.
I will likely read another book by Lauren Belfer, in hopes that as she comes into her literary voice, her writing will grow sharper and more lucid.
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