City of Light by Lauren Belfer has been patiently awaiting me for several years now. I was in the mood for a longer book, and it certainly fit the bill.
About the Book:
1901. Buffalo, New York. Louisa Barrett is headmistress of the prestigious Macauley School for girls and godmother to Grace Sinclair, adopted daughter of Louisa’s now deceased best friend. Grace’s father, Tom, is head of the power station being constructed on the shores of the river feeding Niagara Falls. Buffalo is a thriving hub of commerce as it prepares to host the ambitious Pan-American Exposition.
Perceived as a spinster, the unmarried Louisa is allowed into corners of business and society usually kept for men. She holds regular salons at her home and meets with prestigious and wealthy members of the school’s board at their all-male club. But as Louisa navigates the upper echelons of Buffalo society, she must also conceal a secret from her past — one that would ruin her were it to be exposed. When hidden conflicts begin to escalate, Louisa finds herself caught in the middle of an unexpected storm.
I picked up a copy of City of Light because of something Ann Kingman said on Books on the Nightstand, the podcast she co-hosts with Michael Kindness. She mentioned that in City of Light, Buffalo is more than a setting, almost becoming a character in and of itself. Intrigued, I added City of Light to my collection when I happened upon it at a used book sale.
Ann was certainly right about Buffalo’s larger-than-usual role in the novel. Its essence pervades everything, bits of it seeping into every scene and event. Physical, political, societal, environmental, and more — it’s all there. I don’t believe I’ve ever encountered a book with such an all-encompassing setting. I found it interesting to read about Buffalo as it once was, at the height of its glory.
Belfer made a valiant effort to address a broad spectrum of the problems and debates facing Buffalo just over a hundred years ago. There’s the Pan-American Exposition and the financial issues it caused. There’s the race issues being faced by African Americans as they struggled for rights. There’s the plight of immigrants and unions, the state of orphanages, the political machinations of presidents, and several flavors of women’s issues. And of course, there is the battle for Niagara being waged from multiple angles. Belfer just keeps drawing in groups and their causes and problems. There are so many current affairs issues stuffed in around the story that at times the book gets a little sidetracked as Louisa stops the story to fill the reader in. It’s interesting to learn about them, but all the threads make the story feel sort of tangled and bloated at times, like the author just keeps opening up more cans of worms. Or like she has so many plates spinning at once that you’re just waiting for the whole act to fall apart.
Because of the aforementioned issue, the story dragged for the first two thirds or so of the book. In a novel of over 500 pages, that is not an insignificant chunk. There were occasional flashes of something resembling a mystery or a revelation, but then Louisa would be off on a side trip telling us another anecdote that furthered one of the many issues listed above. Rather than being dramatic, it came off more as informative but kind of unfocused. Then, in the last third, the pace increased dramatically, almost so that it felt like a different book. And the ending…well, it came out of nowhere and didn’t seem to fit at all.
I did like Louisa. I respected her and could sympathize with her as she tried to maintain her precarious place in society. Her voice was intelligent and probing. I just wanted her to get on with the story! The other characters were not so clearly articulated and seemed more to represent the issues they stood for rather than to be three-dimensional people. Symbols of their causes rather than human beings. It made them hard to care about or relate to.
The Verdict: Mediocre
With some heavy editing and a tighter focus, I think City of Light could have been a slimmer novel and a more satisfying read. I feel like I learned a lot about Buffalo at the turn of last century (and I do like learning about history through fiction), but I’m not sure it was worth the time I sunk into reading the novel. I wouldn’t tell you not to read City of Light if it piqued your interest, but you probably won’t find me recommending it on my own.
What books have you read that bit off more than they could chew?