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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.
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.
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.