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Review: City of Light, by Lauren Belfer

Pages: 503

Original date of publication: 1999

My edition: 2005 (Dial)

Why I decided to read: recommendation

How I acquired my copy:, December 2009

Set in Buffalo, New York, in 1901, City of Light is told from the point of view of Louisa Barrett, a 36-year-old spinster and the headmistress of a prestigious girls’ school in town. She is extremely modern, almost to the point of yawning, and her progressive views on girls’ education and the position of women in society in general got to be wearying after a while. The novel starts with a sensational murder connected to the power plant that’s owned by Louisa’s best friend Tom.

This novel was a little confusing. At some points it’s a murder mystery; at others, it’s social commentary; at others the novel focuses more on the technological and political issues of the day. It’s as though the author conducted tons and tons of research on her subject (by no means a bad thing) and she decided that she just had to get it all in. Everything about the use of electricity is detailed, so much so that I became bored by the author’s descriptions of every single little thing.

Another thing I couldn’t stand about this novel is the main character. She’s full of contradictions: she’s modern and progressive and has salons at her home that are attended by all the notables of Buffalo. She’s also concerned about appearances; on the other, she encourages people to think that she’s got a “Boston marriage with her friend.” She’s strong and independent, but she allows something to happen to her that basically makes her a victim in the situation, that basically goes against the character the author created in the first 400 pages.

The plot had a lot of potential, but there were some serious holes; and there were some twists that were interesting but not particularly skillfully revealed (I could see the twist about Grace coming from a mile away). I liked the premise of the book, but there were some major flaws about the book that couldn’t get me seriously interested in the plot or the characters. It’s too bad, because there’s a lot of promise here.


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