CITY OF LIGHT by Lauren Belfer

CITY OF LIGHT

KIRKUS REVIEW

An ambitious, vividly detailed and stirring debut novel offering a panorama of American life at the beginning of the 20th century. Louisa Barrett, the bright, outspoken, handsome but rigidly proper headmistress of the exclusive (and progressive) Macaulay School for Girls in Buffalo, where the city’s elite send their daughters, seems at first an unlikely heroine. In fact, she harbors an astounding secret: she’s been the mistress of a powerful national politician and has given birth to a daughter. The child was adopted by a wealthy local couple, Louisa’s best friends, and Louisa owes her position partly to political influence: the elite have joined to protect the President’s reputation by sheltering Louisa. All of that is threatened, though, when the adoptive father, Tom Sinclair, is implicated in the death of the chief engineer at the new Niagara power station. Tom, a technological visionary, is director of that same electricity-generating station. Louisa, in an attempt to save him (and her daughter, an affectionate child who assumes that her mother is simply a good family friend), begins to investigate. Louisa’s persistent inquiries offer Belfer an opportunity to create a cross-section of American society in a turbulent time; ranging from the slums to the grand houses of a city then very much in the ascendant, her narrative encompasses everything from labor turmoil and the struggles being waged by minorities (women, immigrants, blacks) for a voice, to the dazzling dreams of visionaries like Tom Sinclair, who imagines that technology will bring equality in its wake. Belfer keeps a large, fascinating, exuberant cast well in motion, and Louisa, who manages to resolve the murder mystery but loses much in the process, is a vulnerable, complex, and believeable heroine. Belfer’s portrait of the nation at a hard if ebullient time, while likely to remind some readers of Doctorow’s Ragtime, is less chilly and more subtle than that work, and very gripping. A remarkably assured and satisfying first novel. ($200,000 ad/promo; Book-of-the-Month main selection; author tour)

Pub Date: May 11th, 1999
ISBN: 0-385-33401-X
Page count: 518pp
Publisher: Dial
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1st, 1999




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