City of Light

City of Light

3.5 37
by Lauren Belfer
     
 

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It is 1901 and Buffalo, New York, stands at the center of the nation's attention as a place of immense wealth and sophistication. The massive hydroelectric power development at nearby Niagara Falls and the grand Pan-American Exposition promise to bring the Great Lakes "city of light" even more repute.

Against this rich historical backdrop lives Louisa Barrett,…  See more details below

Overview

It is 1901 and Buffalo, New York, stands at the center of the nation's attention as a place of immense wealth and sophistication. The massive hydroelectric power development at nearby Niagara Falls and the grand Pan-American Exposition promise to bring the Great Lakes "city of light" even more repute.

Against this rich historical backdrop lives Louisa Barrett, the attractive, articulate headmistress of the Macaulay School for Girls. Protected by its powerful all-male board, "Miss Barrett" is treated as an equal by the men who control the life of the city. Lulled by her unique relationship with these titans of business, Louisa feels secure in her position, until a mysterious death at the power plant triggers a sequence of events that forces her to return to a past she has struggled to conceal, and to question everything and everyone she holds dear.

Both observer and participant, Louisa Barrett guides the reader through the culture and conflicts of a time and place where immigrant factory workers and nature conservationists protest violently against industrialists, where presidents broker politics, where wealthy "Negroes" fight for recognition and equality, and where women struggle to thrive in a system that allows them little freedom.

Wrought with remarkable depth and intelligence, City of Light remains a work completely of its own era, and of ours as well. A stirring literary accomplishment, Lauren Belfer's first novel marks the debut of a fresh voice for the new millennium and heralds a major publishing event.


From the Paperback edition.

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Editorial Reviews

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Even the considerable length of Lauren Belfer's City of Light can't prepare the reader for all the novel holds. In turn-of-the-century Buffalo, she illuminates (among other concerns) the struggles of women, blacks, immigrants and lesbians, labor unions and socialists; the birth of environmentalism; the back-room dealings of industrialists; and the illegitimate children of predatory U.S. Presidents.

The novel truly contains multitudes, yet it finds its heart in, and its focus through, Louisa Barrett. The headmistress of the Macauley School for Girls, Louisa is "tall, slender, almost-blond, sensitive, and basically shy — though sometimes appearing on the surface bossy and a know-it-all." A salon of noted intellectuals convenes at her home, and she enjoys the protection of the powerful men who sit on the school's board. She is considered "one of the boys," yet Louisa merely enjoys proximity to power and must still struggle with the strictures society places on her gender. In hope that there might be a future in which women of equal intellect will enjoy true equality, she exposes her students to all things (e.g. poverty, hydroelectricity) under the cover of producing marriageable young women.

One student, Grace Sinclair, occupies her more than the others. She is Louisa's godchild and has been acting strangely, frightening other girls with her morbidity; this in itself is not surprising, as Grace's mother, Margaret, has recently died. Her father, Thomas, attempts to understand his daughter while simultaneously directingthenew hydroelectric project at Niagara Falls. A true believer in industry's possibilities, Thomas is hoping to "change the world with electricity" and is impatient with any resistance to this new source of energy. Electricity is still little understood by Buffalo's society, but expectations run high: "it seemed like magic, but it was science. Magic had become science, science had become magic, anything was possible and the future was ours."

At the Sinclairs' home one evening, Louisa overhears Thomas arguing with an engineer, Karl Speyer; when Speyer turns up dead the next morning, Louisa begins to suspect Thomas. His surprise gift of one million dollars to the Macauley School exacerbates her suspicions — she wonders if he's trying to buy her silence. The world these characters inhabit is fraught with intrigue, every action fueled by old secrets and whispers, hopes of profit. Louisa seeks the truth, the light that casts the shadows; at the same time, she strives to protect those she loves and to keep her own dark secret hidden.

In the world of City of Light , to know someone's secrets is to determine his or her actions. This is a book about control, and about forces that can only be controlled at some cost. Just as men restrain and channel those women who seek knowledge and access to power, they harness the force of Niagara Falls and the labor of the underclass. Belfer's writing is also characterized by control; her narrator, Louisa, is ingeniously selective in how she reveals herself, while at the same time exposing (and drawing the reader into) her own blind spots. The prose is taut and precise, rich but rarely too rich, rife with surprising insights. Here's Louisa, entering a room illuminated by electricity: "the air itself seemed clear, vibrant, and somehow invigorating. All at once I knew why: Gaslight consumed the oxygen in a room; electricity did not." Later, taking leave of a man she fears, she wonders "Could he possibly have formed a romantic attachment to me, or did he simply regret losing the opportunity to torture me? Or were the two the same to him?"

Louisa seems to possess a political sensibility of the 1990s, yet she must continually hold herself back. "[I]f I lost my reputation," she reasons, "I would lose everything I had worked for." While the reader chafes along with her, this is not the only frustration that finds its expression in Louisa. Certainly, as its narrator, she is responsible for the novel's greatest delights; however, she must also be held accountable for its often confounding tone. The wealth of historical information sometimes threatens to overwhelm the narrative's dramatic momentum; early on, especially, the novel can feel more like an education than an entertainment. Louisa speaks with great historical precision for pages at a time, invoking names, dates, architects, and other obscure details, and this works against the process of identifying with her, of bringing her into proximity. The return from such encyclopedic flights to more personal dramas is not always an easy one, and occasionally we get stilted sentiment where heat might be desired. The effect on the reader is a strange combination of longing, frustration, and fascination — Louisa often calls us closer only to hold us away. It is easy to understand why so many of the novel's characters seek to form attachments with her.

City of Light could be a slicker, smoother book, but it would be less of one. The novel's ambition can't be denied and must be acknowledged and appreciated. If the sheer range of all Lauren Belfer attempts to include leads to some awkwardness, it's a small price to pay. Through ingenious storytelling, she does not merely re-create a world, she creates one, and populates it with finely textured characters — some historical, some fictional, some a mixture: all real. Just when the plot begins to seem too carefully set up, the characters too choreographed, and the mysteries too perfectly explained, another level of secrets is exposed. This book unfolds. And in the end, the story turns in a way that explains the reason behind its telling, the force behind its shape and tone. The result is a novel that is alive, haunted, and large in every sense of the word.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780307764027
Publisher:
Random House Publishing Group
Publication date:
09/01/2010
Sold by:
Random House
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
512
Sales rank:
247,495
File size:
3 MB

Read an Excerpt

On the first Monday in March 1901, in the early evening when  the sound of sleigh bells filled the air, a student unexpectedly knocked at my  door. I was accustomed to receiving visitors on Mondays before dinner, when my  drawing room was transformed into a salon. Bankers and industrialists would  stop by my comfortable stone house attached to the Macaulay School, knowing  they would find professors and artists, editors and architects.

In those days, Buffalo was flush in an era of extraordinary economic  prosperity and civic optimism. The city had become the most important inland

port in America because of its pivotal location at the eastern end of the Great  Lakes.Indeed, at the turn of our century, Buffalo had taken its place among the great cities of the United States. Many of the visitors to my salon were from New York City or Chicago, men who came to Buffalo at the behest of our  public-spirited business leaders to offer their best work to the city.  These included architects Louis Sullivan and Stanford White; sculptors Augustus  Saint-Gaudens and Daniel Chester French. Years ago I met architect Daniel  Burnham and he invited himself for sherry with a man whose name I now forget,  and came again on his next visit to Buffalo. Soon they all came, presenting  their cards with a note: "At the suggestion of our mutual  friend . . ." Then the local people of distinction, with such  family names as Rumsey, Albright, and Scatcherd, sensing an opportunity, came  calling too.

They could do this only because I was considered unmarriageable. Because I was  a kind of "wise virgin"--an Athena, if you will--these men  granted me my freedom and I granted them theirs. Of course there were women at  my salon--doctors, architects, artists. Those who had husbands came with  them; those who did not came alone, or with the other women who were their life  companions.

I liked to think that my Monday evening salon was the only place in the city

where men and women could mingle as equals. The married and marriageable women  of the upper reaches of the town were hidden away, given little room for  interests beyond clothes, children, entertaining, and a bit of work among the  poor. They led a limited life, which filled me with sadness and which I tried  at Macaulay to change. Ieducated the young women placed in my care--the daughters of power and  wealth--to expect more. I liked to think that I'd trained a generation of  subversives who took up their expected positions in society and then, day by

day, bit by bit, fostered a revolution.

In the past two years, the stream of visitors to my salon had become ever more  fascinating and their concerns ever more urgent as they planned the design and  construction of a world's fair called the Pan-American Exposition. Yes,  Buffalo was to be an exposition city now, in the tradition of Philadelphia and  Chicago. The Pan-American would celebrate the commercial links between  North and South America as well as America's technological breakthroughs,  particularly in the area of electricity, which was being developed at nearby

Niagara Falls. Most important, the Pan-American's very existence symbolized  and confirmed Buffalo's new, vital place in the nation.

The exposition site was less than a mile from my home, and over eight  million people from around the country and the world were expected to visit the  fair during the coming summer. Debates about lighting, coloring, and schematic  statuary took place before my fire, the gentlemen tapping their pipes against  the mantel. Sometimes they called my gatherings a "saloon" instead of a  salon, as if they were visiting the Wild West and I were Annie Oakley. I tried  not to show them how much their teasing pleased me.

But on this particular Monday evening in March, I sent my visitors away by  seven. There was a wet snow falling and a chill dampness in the air that made  me want to be alone in front of the fire. My guests grumbled halfheartedly,  though some of them were privately grateful, no doubt, to return home; here on  the shores of Lake Erie we respected the icy storms of early spring. And  although they might not admit it, morethan a few of my out-of-town visitors probably yearned to leave business behind  and move on to a relaxing game of whist in the mahogany-paneled  confines of the all-male Buffalo Club.a] Even so, exposition president John Milburn was chagrined to be forced to cut

off his conversation with chief architect John Carrere. "You're  sending us out to talk in the snow?" he queried in the hallway.

"Absolutely," I replied. "You should walk the exposition grounds in the snow

and evaluate your work right there--much better altogether." The men  laughed as they gathered their coats and made their way out the door.

After they were gone, I sat in my rocking chair, resting my head,  luxuriating in the evening. Then in the quiet, I heard my favorite sound:  sleigh bells jingling on harnesses as the horses trotted down Bidwell Parkway,  sleigh gliders swishing through the snow. At this hour, bejeweled couples  cloaked in fur against the cold were on their way to dinner parties; snowstorms  were never permitted to interfere with the social swirl. Closing my eyes, I  conjured a scene in my mind: a dining room with French doors and a coffered  ceiling, a long table laid for twelve, freshly polished silver, candlelight  throwing rainbows through the crystal. I was forever apart from that life,  observing it, never living it. Nonetheless I pictured myself reclining on a  sleigh, the harness bells dancing, a bison skin pulled around me for warmth as  snowflakes touched my face and I was carried to dinner at the estate of John

J. Albright or Dexter P. Rumsey.

A knock at the front door intruded on my thoughts. Not wanting to be rude to

latecomers, I rose and went into the hall. My Polish housekeeper, Katarzyna,

had already opened the door, but she had not welcomed the visitor.

"People gone now. Visiting time finished," she said with a cut of her hand,  as if to shoo the caller away.

The reason for her behavior was clear: One of my students was at the door,  peering around Katarzyna to find me. Millicent Talbert, age thirteen,  mature-looking for heryears but possessed of an innocence and earnestness which at school made her  the one who always missed the jokes.

"Miss Barrett?"

There was a hint of the Middle West in her speech. Millicent was an orphan who  had come to Buffalo from Ohio to live with her aunt and uncle, who had adopted  her. In the unlit doorway, Millicent was a shadow against the white of the  evening.

"I'm sorry, Miss Barrett, I don't want to bother you, but--" She paused,  glancing at Katarzyna. "May I speak with you? Just you, I mean. I watched from  the corner and waited until everyone left, really I did, Miss Barrett, I  didn't want to disturb you. I didn't want to cause trouble."

From the Paperback edition.

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Meet the Author

Lauren Belfer grew up in Buffalo, New York. She received her M.F.A. in fiction from Columbia University in New York City, where she now lives with her husband and son. City of Light is her first novel.


From the Hardcover edition.

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City of Light 3.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 35 reviews.
MapleValleyBrooke More than 1 year ago
Immaculate historical detail about an era most of us know little about--Grover Cleveland, the beginnings of electricity, the debate over whether or not to allow Niagara Falls' waters to be used, the robber barons--and all interwoven with a mystery, a love story, and sinister machinations. I thoroughly enjoyed this!
Guest More than 1 year ago
I am an acquaintance of the author and have to say that I was shocked by the depth of the struggles portrayed in this book. I read it because I know her, but I will read her other works in the future because I think she's a great talent. Reading 'City of Light' I was fascinated by American history in a way that I only wish I could have been when I was younger, as it was my least-favorite subject in school. The one area which I found lacking in this story was the denouement: in the end, what did it all mean? Louisa Barrett's character seems entirely too bridled by her own fears and the very real constraints of the time and I would have admired her much more for taking a stronger stance and doing something, anything, instead of ending the story in much the same place as where she began it. I guess it's a realistic depiction of a woman feeling powerless in the face of a regime of men, but I expected more. Where is the brave adventurer's spirit in this woman? Has her life taken it completely out of her? I do definitely recommend this book for anyone interested in the history of Buffalo, the lives of early 'captains of industry', and anyone who would like a peek into what life must have been like early in the century for a single working woman without the power of a husband or family to shield her. Sadly, it means that she was largely a puppet. However, I do recommend this book and hope to see further work from Lauren. Great first effort, impeccably researched and intelligently written, even though the ending was a bit of a disappointment. It was certainly better reading than 'The Devil Wears Prada', 'Shopgirl' and things of that ilk.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Great build up with lackluster resoolutio. Nothing exciting.
patfoxli More than 1 year ago
This very engaging story profiled a strong woman living through a period of time where female strength was not valued. She sacrifices everything for the sake of a child and still manages a career after a devastating event. The backdrop of early days in Buffalo and the development of electricity was fascinating as well. Great read!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I have never read a dumber book. The publishers say that the heroine is a woman before her times but she is not. She is a woman set squarely in her times, and she spends the entire book trying to prove that she belongs in that world with those nonsense people. She is so dumb I don't know how she ended up as the headmistress of a a school leading young ladies. Stupidest part was when she found out who the killer was and tried to reason with the killer instead of telling the police. How dumb can she get? And to add insult to injury the author tries to make Louisa seem like a thinking woman who questions things and people around her. To me that came off as being weak instead of her seeming like a thinking woman she seems like someone who can't make her mind up about anything. Just as well others were controlling her life for her. 
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Good history of early days of the water powered electricity. Took about 100 pages to develop the characters and to get interesting. Once into the story, I enjoyed it. Those who like historical fiction should enjoy City of Light
sharno22 More than 1 year ago
An entire course in the history of the region and social issues in the US during this era is contained within the pages of this novel. The story was almost the backdrop for the history instead of vice versa.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The story provides a glimpse of what like in Buffalo during its glory days! A must-read for any native of the area interested in its history and the magnificence of Niagara Falls. The characters were so well-developed that Icared for their well being.
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I read this book when it was first released and passed the book on. A womens' group I belong to chose this book for our end of year program. Rereading this book has been wonderful. There is so much depth in the story. The author has provided a vivid picture of life in Buffalo, NY at the turn of the century. How I wish the city were even half as vibrant now as it was then! I am enjoying the story even more during the second reading, learning so much and escaping into the a time of history that is described passionately. The story line is somewhat complicated, but worth navigating through. I would definitely recommend this book to others.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
I had to read this book for an assignment in school. I felt that at times it was confusing trying to figure out which character was talking but all in all i thought it was a fairly good book. I liked the fact that it was placed in Buffalo where I live and it portrayed the city in a very positive way. Good book overall, I would strongly recomend it especially to those living in Buffalo and those who like history.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I read this book, because it was an assignment for school, living in buffalo it was an even more interesting book to read.. i really liked and it is probably one of my favorite books EVER!
Guest More than 1 year ago
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. The descriptions of Buffalo and Niagara Falls are amazing. The characters are well-developed and the story is very interesting with a very unusual ending. You feel like you are right there with the characters in Buffalo in 1901 right down to what they are wearing and the carriages they ride in and the places that they visit. It is suspenseful and very intelligently written. Also there is some interesting history of electricity.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Today, Buffalo and honeymoon destination Niagara Falls are synonymous. A century ago it was famous for America's first alternating current power facility and infamous for where President McKinley was assassinated. Powerful forces jockeyed to answer: is electric power a commercial product or public service. This is the book's subject as told by schoolmarm and headmistress Louisa Barrett. Her position brings her into the inner circle of Buffalo's elite, who sponsor her and make her their unwitting pawn. Her personal struggles move the book at a decent pace, but the power structure interplay is fascinating and makes this a recommended read.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Lauren Belfer¿s first novel City of Light is intriguing. She combines fact and fiction, excellent inspiration and romance, and most importantly mystery and history. Ms. Belfer¿s vivid description of location, scenes, scenery and characters, help the reader picture what is happening. While reading this novel, it seemed as if I was next to Louisa Barrett, the headmistress of the Macauley School for girls, as one of her students. The story revolves around controversy over Niagara Falls and the amount of water being taken for the nation¿s electricity. This affects not only the hydropower project and the environmentalists, but also Ms. Barrett and her connection with Tomas Sinclair, the head of the project. Despite the events in the city, there are suspicious, secretive `accidental deaths¿ which Louisa Barrett questions. At the turn of the century, being a woman, Louisa Barrett, is very well treated by an all-male school board. She is well respected and is considered no less of a man in terms of knowledge. She has a willingness to teach her students how to survive the 'man¿s world' at the time, she makes it her a duty to instill high values, she is persistent in working hard despite certain personal issues, she believes in what she teaches, and never gives up on others. She is a progressive woman and a strong character in the City of Light, someone the reader could learn from. City of Light is truly a great read, as it doesn¿t belong to a particular genre; it¿s a little bit of everything in one enlightening novel.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The setting for CITY OF LIGHT is the early 1900's, burgeoning Buffalo, New York, the hometown of the author Lauren Belfer. Infused with the excitement of the development of Niagara Falls, one of the greatest hydropower projects in the USA, there are factions that desire to control the distribution of electrical power.... i.e. industrial vs. public usage. Rights activists attempt to protect the amount of water that the upper echelon may use for power purposes vs. for the natural beauty of the area and the public good. The elite use money, power and position to control the cast of characters represented in this historical novel. The activists use public rallies as well as secretive physicallly destructive means to gain attention to their cause. The Pan-Am Exposition is a primary historical event revolving around glory, greed, recognition, partnerships, and the future of Buffalo NY, Niagara Falls, and surrounding locations. Narrating character, Ms. Louisa Barrett is elected to the position of headmistress to the prestigious Macauley School for Girls, reporting to a powerful board of elite men, who back Louisa in her goals for the School, however control with money & societal position, assumed,assigned & unassigned. Proud of her proteges, Louisa represents a forward-looking woman, who is highly supportive of education for women, instilling high values in Macauley students and its graduates and the paths they choose for their future in the world. Amid suspicious 'accidental deaths' of a mysterious nature, abduction of a McCauley school girl,leaden hands of control over Thomas Sinclair, head of the hydropower project, secrets of Ms. Louisa Barrett and her connections with Gloria Sinclair and Gloria's deceased mother Margaret Sinclair, racial prejudices combined with political plays and maneuvers for power are inherent and rampant. CITY OF LIGHTS contains moments of joy & triumph with much despair, sadness and tragedy. The author's talent of elegance in writing with finesse touches the emotions, with eloquence and historical knowledge, and is the prime positive factor of this novel. Author Belfer's ability to vividly describe the locations, scenes, scenery and resolve of the cast of characters persuades the reader to complete this tome to its ending, discovering justice unabated throughout the story. The author provides intelligent, informative facts of research representing events & the non-fictional personages who played a part in the role of rights, politics, progress, and power. Among the historical cast, the least of which are... journalist Nellie Bly; President (Stephen) Grover Cleveland; Thomas Edison; President William McKinley; Vice President then President Theodore Roosevelt; the famous Frederick Law Olmstead (landscaper-designer of Buffalo NY Parks; the well-known Manhattan NYC Central Park, plus other sites); rich & powerful magnates such as J.P. Morgan; and Mary Talbert (Afro-American rights activist). The Macauley School for Girls is a fictional name for the still existent Buffalo Seminary, Buffalo, NY. The attempted assassination of President McKinley and his subsequent death is dutifully recorded. This reader is proud to have absorbed this novel, only regretting that it took so long to pull the 1999 publication off the shelf from within a plethora of tomes beckoning to be read. It is truly a writing that embraces the senses, and emotions of the cast members finding their demeanor truly human. --This text refers to the Paperback edition 1999.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book had a great sense of place - you got to feel what Buffalo might have been like and a great sense of the time period. The writing, at times, was excellent. I didn't think that it was too long, dry, or that the ending felt like 'so what.'
Guest More than 1 year ago
Living in the city of Buffalo I found this book very interesting to read. However it was very slow moving and anti-climatic. I found the very end to be especially disappointing as it made the entire story seem like 'what was the point?' If it were to be made into a movie, the end would need some adjusting.