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City of Light Hardcover – May 11, 1999
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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
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.
Top customer reviews
Nominally, this is a historical mystery: There is a dead body, after all, and our protagonist -- Miss Louisa Barrett, headmistress of Buffalo's prestigious school for girls -- is not quite sure whether it was accidental. But the story is less about sleuthing than it is about the life-and-times of 1901 Buffalo, which I had not realized was quite as much a crux of history.
But I should have. The power plant at Niagara Falls was changing everything; in the words of one character, it was transforming water into light. "Outside the river was fierce and turbulent; but here, amid the generators, the power of nature had been subdued by the power of man." This had broad implications: political, economic (investors included the Astors and J.P. Morgan), environmental (for the first time, people had to consider the effects of technology on the landscape), social (not the least of which was a dreadful death rate from tech-induced deaths, since there were no safety standards and little data from which to develop them).
In City of Light, we see all these elements interacting in the tale of Miss Barrett, a spinster whose education and background permits her to be both a observant outsider and an exceptional woman who interacts with the powerful people behind the Pan-American Exposition and even U.S. presidents (two of whom came from Buffalo, didja know?), as well as Roycroft founder Elbert Hubbard, and the NAACP's Mary Talbert.
The history is great. I learned a lot, enough to justify a 5-star rating. The storytelling... is okay, "eh" enough to pull that rating down to 4 stars. It's not that the plot is poor or that the writing is yucky (in some places it's wonderful: "Power surrounds you like an aura, and you take pleasure in treating the aura lightly"). It's that it moves too slowly; I kept feeling, "C'mon, step it up a bit!" In fact, I got so impatient that for the last 75 pages I skimmed rather than read with dedicated attention.
Still, I'm very glad I read the book. It was a great way to get a cross-section of history and all the issues that people needed to deal with. If you like a bit of storytelling with your history, this might suit you quite well.