City of Women: A Novel

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Overview


A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER AND ONE OF KIRKUS REVIEWS' BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR

It is 1943—the height of the Second World War. With the men away at the front, Berlin has become a city of women.

On the surface, Sigrid Schröder is the model German soldier’s wife: She goes to work every day, does as much with her rations as she can, and dutifully cares for her meddling mother-in-law, all the while ...

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City of Women: A Novel

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Overview


A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER AND ONE OF KIRKUS REVIEWS' BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR

It is 1943—the height of the Second World War. With the men away at the front, Berlin has become a city of women.

On the surface, Sigrid Schröder is the model German soldier’s wife: She goes to work every day, does as much with her rations as she can, and dutifully cares for her meddling mother-in-law, all the while ignoring the horrific immoralities of the regime.

But behind this façade is an entirely different Sigrid, a woman of passion who dreams of her former Jewish lover, now lost in the chaos of the war. But Sigrid is not the only one with secrets—she soon finds herself caught between what is right and what is wrong, and what falls somewhere in the shadows between the two . . .

READERS GUIDE INSIDE

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In this stunning debut about the battle between good and evil, Gillham puts a fresh spin on the horrors of WWII by focusing on civilian German women to reveal that, amid the many adherents of the party line there were a handful of unsung heroes. We first meet Sigrid Schröder in 1943. She is an unassuming stenographer stuck in a loveless marriage and living in Berlin with her sour, difficult mother-in-law. But her life is not as common as it seems, for she has a lover, a Jewish lover, and if that were not risky enough, Sigrid becomes entangled with a neighbor who is helping to shelter Jews. As the war progresses, and Sigrid’s husband is sent to the Russian front, she’s drawn deeper into a world where trust is a hard-won commodity. The line between what is “right” and “wrong” becomes harder to define as Sigrid, confronted with increasingly more horrifying realities, finds her resolve constantly tested. Gillham’s transcendent prose (“Looking into her eyes is like staring thorough the windows of a bombed-out building”; “The words both murdered her and made her whole”), powerfully drawn characters, and the multilayered dilemmas make his first literary effort a powerful revelation. Agent: Rebecca Gradinger, Fletcher & Company. (Aug.)
Kirkus Reviews
In his debut about 1943 Berlin, Gillham uses elements common to the many previous movies and books about World War II—from vicious Nazis to black marketeers to Jewish children hiding in attics to beautiful blond German women hiding their sexuality inside drab coats—yet manages to make the story fresh. The blond beauty is Sigrid, a stenographer living alone with her unpleasant mother-in-law while her husband, Kaspar, serves on the eastern front. Sigrid's Berlin is a grim city full of suspicious, fearful citizens barely coping with shortages and almost nightly air raids, people not above turning each other over to the Gestapo for unpatriotic behavior. But Sigrid is mostly consumed in pining not for Kaspar but for Egon, the Jewish black markeeter with whom she carried on a passionate affair before he went into hiding. At first, Sigrid resists when Ericha, a rebellious teenager living in her building, involves her in an underground network hiding Jews, but iconoclast Sigrid soon finds that her experience as Egon's occasional "bagman" serves her well as she delivers supplies and humans to a safe house. At the same time, she befriends new neighbors, two sisters and their wounded-officer brother, Wolfram, whose impeccable German credentials are not what they seem. Sigrid finds herself wondering if a particular Jewish woman with two daughters in hiding might be Egon's wife. But when Egon reappears in her life, she doesn't bring up her suspicions. Instead she hides him in her neighbors' apartment, an awkward situation given that she has recently begun what she considers a purely sexual affair with Wolfram. The wounded and embittered Kaspar's return only complicates the situation. With her underground activities as intricate as her love life, Sigrid can trust no one, yet must trust a dangerously wider circle of acquaintances until the hold-your-breath suspense ending. World War II Germany may be familiar ground, but Gillham's novel—vividly cinematic yet subtle and full of moral ambiguity, not to mention riveting characters—is as impossible to put down as it is to forget.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780425252963
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)
  • Publication date: 5/7/2013
  • Pages: 448
  • Sales rank: 98,714
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.10 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author


David R. Gillham is the New York Times-bestselling author of City of Women. He spent more than a decade in the book business, and now lives with his family in western Massachusetts and is currently working on his second novel.
 
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Interviews & Essays

Watch, Listen, Eat

An essay by David R. Gillham

One way I tried to build the atmosphere of Sigrid's Berlin was by introducing wartime movies, music, and food into the narrative. Of course, when Sigrid attends the cinema, it not really to watch a movie. She's looking for a small space of privacy, which is why she favors war movies. These didn't do very well at the box office in Berlin; the audiences for them were usually sparse. The average Berliner was less interested in seeing propaganda films such as Soldiers of Tomorrow than Heinz Rühmann in escapist fare such as The Gas Man, or Gustaf Gründgens in a lavish eighteenth-century costume drama. For more recent movies that capture either the essence of Berlin or the stunning contradictions of the war years, I'd recommend Cabaret and Europa, Europa.

You can still find a lot of popular music from the time period. In the book, Sigrid's mother-in-law is listening to Lale Andersen singing on the radio. Andersen's number-one wartime success was the ubiquitous “Lili Marleen”—a song that created such a stir that even British forces fighting in North Africa adopted it as one of their favorite tunes.

Naturally, classical music was still at the top of German radio playlists during the war: Beethoven, Mozart, Bach—though the music of all Jewish composers was banned from the airwaves. If you're interested in the antic, often slightly loopy music of pre-Nazi Berlin, which Sigrid would have listened to while growing up, there are still recordings available of entertainers such as Margo Lion, the famously hilarious cabaret singer, or the popular ensemble known as the Comedian Harmonists. Marlene Dietrich was “falling in love again” in the golden twenties and early thirties, and later recorded a number of her songs from the era in English. The internationally acclaimed chanteuse Ute Lemper has released renditions of cabaret songs that were all the rage in Berlin between the wars, in both English and the original German (“Ich Bin ein Vamp!” for example). Max Raabe and the Palast Orchester are phenomenal at re-creating the music of that time (from “Fräulein, Pardon” to “Mein Gorilla.”)

For those interested in what the average Berlin Hausfrau was serving at the table during the war, I recommend Gisela McBride's Memoirs of a 1000-Year-Old Woman. Her autobiography stretches from the late twenties to the war's end, and is chock-full of details illuminating everyday life, including recipes. (I cannot vouch for the healthfulness of any of these dishes, or the taste, but if you need recipes for cabbage dumplings, cabbage fish rolls, cabbage pie, or cabbage strudel, you'll find them there).

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 80 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star

(33)

4 Star

(25)

3 Star

(8)

2 Star

(11)

1 Star

(3)

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 80 Customer Reviews
  • Posted August 20, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    You will race through this novel

    Author David Gillham's debut novel, City of Women, has an interesting premise: in WWII Berlin, the city is filled mainly with women, as the men are off to war. I found the thought intriguing, a city where the women went to work, kept the home fires burning, but also actively supported the cause of war.

    Or did they? Sigrid works at a factory and lives with her miserable mother-in-law while her husband is fighting at the front. She is unhappy, and one day attends an afternoon movie and begins a torrid sexual relationship with a Jewish man hiding in the movie theatre balcony.

    Sigrid grows tired of pretending to be the supportive wife, the good German who believes that what her country is doing is right. She becomes curious about Ericha, the young mother's helper in the downstairs apartment, and when she discovers that the girl is helping to hide Jews, Sigrid reluctantly becomes involved after Ericha tells her
    "Compromise is the lesson of the day. It's easy to do. A pregnant woman with a yellow star must walk in the freezing rain because Jews are barred from public transport. Just don't look. A man is beaten by the police in front of his children. Don't look. The SS march a column of skeletons, in filthy striped rags, down the middle of the goddamned street. But don't look," she whispers roughly. "You avert your eyes enough times, and finally you go blind. You don't actually see anything any longer."
    We've all heard about the French Resistance, but I have heard little about the Germans who were covertly working against their country. There certainly were people there who followed their conscience, at their own peril.

    When Sigrid's lover disappears, she is distraught. She becomes involved with her neighbor's brother, a brutish soldier who uses his connections take advantage of others. She hopes to use him to find her lost lover. Her Jewish lover reappears and asks her to help him with something illicit. Sigrid doesn't know whom to trust.

    Meanwhile, Sigrid has become more involved in hiding Jews. She becomes attached to a mother and her two young daughters, believing them to be her Jewish lover's family who disappeared.

    The author gives us a real look at what it's like to live in a war zone; some of the strongest scenes take place as the residents of the apartment hide from bombs being dropped. You can actually feel the claustrophobia of all those people locked in a small space.

    There are many tense scenes in the novel; several times I felt myself gritting my teeth, waiting to see what would happen. Gillham wrote some brilliant characters, and placed them in situations that had me questioning if I would have the courage that Sigrid and Ericha showed.

    This is the kind of novel that has you racing through the pages to finish, and yet once you did, you wanted to sit back and contemplate what you had just read for a long while. I loved the complicated journey that Sigrid finds herself on. I think it would be a fabulous film, with many great roles for female actresses. I would love to see that movie.

    10 out of 12 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 13, 2012

    I could not put this book down! The story itself was so engagin

    I could not put this book down! The story itself was so engaging that I just couldn't stop thinking about it. The main character felt like a nuanced, real person; reading her story made me wonder how I would have behaved if I was faced with similar circumstances. Definitely a good book club book that would prompt a lot of discussion. For me, it was a perfect mix because it had a juicy, compelling plot but the writing was very good. I felt like I was learning what it was like to live in Berlin during World War II.

    8 out of 8 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 10, 2013

    more from this reviewer

    Every time I read about "Hitler's War" I am amazed by

    Every time I read about "Hitler's War" I am amazed by the people and the choices they make and I wonder, what would I have done? How would I have handled my life in war……
    The story starts out a little slow and this is not a fun or light read, this is gut wrenching and thought provoking & it took me a while to get into it but once I did I needed to know more.
    Sigrid is a good German Girl. World war 2 is coming to an end, her husband as with most of the men in Berlin are dead or off fighting and she is left alone in a city of women.
    she is living with her nasty mother in law and the only thing to do to escape the hell of war is go to the theatre. It is there that she is reluctantly drawn in to helping the Jews and eventually falling in love with one of them. This is a book about questions and choices, how and why we make them and the consequences that can follow us for a lifetime.

    P.S. I love the cover art of this book...:)

    4 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 11, 2012

    Once you start reading, you will find it very difficult to put t

    Once you start reading, you will find it very difficult to put this novel down. Sigrid, the central character, is a woman of exceptional charisma, and her journey is a compelling one. David Gillham, who seems to know the city of Berlin at the time of World War II as if he was present then and there to witness, delivers a thrilling tale of both romance and intrigue. Unfolding in these vivid and moving scenes and lively dialogues are questions of morality and survival. What is courage made of? Who can be trusted? How many ways can one love? Highly recommended.

    4 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 15, 2012

    Great read

    A novel i could not put down i couuld picture the vharacters snd betlin ss if watching a movie I eould highly recommend it I hope yo find more from this author

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 8, 2012

    highly recommend.

    Good read, really wove several mini stories together and gave a feel for war torn Berlin, the brave, evil, oblivious. The rationing, the air raids, the general populace encouraged to reproduce and have lots of kids. ANd some espionage, sometimes from unexpected places.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 18, 2012

    Excellent book that made you wonder what any of us would do. Th

    Excellent book that made you wonder what any of us would do. The book
    was a completely new look @ Berliner's in war time.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 27, 2013

    Disappointed

    I had high hopes for this novel, but it really didn't live up to my expectations. Some parts were interesting, but I thought the ending was pretty crappy.

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 24, 2012

    I truly enjoyed the story, but his editor could have caught the

    I truly enjoyed the story, but his editor could have caught the mistakes in the book and it would have read easier. It interferred with the flow and I had to go back and reread sentences for it to make sense. I would have thought they would have done a better job with editing. Maybe next time they will be more careful.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 26, 2012

    recommended

    Thought provoking, good read.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 29, 2012

    Not your everyday read

    This was an engaging book that kept my interest peeked. The characters were flawed, nasty, heroic and......very human. The story line is not one that has been repeated so many times that you find yourself growing bored while reading. I will make it a point to read this author in the future.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 23, 2012

    Eye opening as to the women"s role!

    I greatly appreciated reading about what the women sacrificed while their husbands were at the frontlines .It took alot of courage to do what they did

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 21, 2012

    Excellent book! Compelling story. I simply could not put the b

    Excellent book! Compelling story. I simply could not put the book down. A must read!

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 14, 2012

    Great historical fiction!

    A superb read for anyone enjoying a mix of suspense, broken relationships, romance and the terror of living in Nazi Germany in opposition to the totalitarian regime.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 14, 2012

    Do not recommend

    Very disappointing read. How I thought the book would be and how it actually turned out were two entirely different things. I would not read another book by this author - book jumped all over the place - could have been a really good book if plot was presented differently.

    2 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 5, 2013

    David Gillham has written a truly rich and profound novel. It sp

    David Gillham has written a truly rich and profound novel. It speaks of the  survival and courage of all
    women during WWII in Nazi Germany. You are instantly transported to that time and  place; to the almost 
    hopeless situations that these women are forced to endure but ultimately there is survival for some.
    I was truly moved because it was written by a man in a woman's voice. Time well spent!
    Looking forward to reading more from this author.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 23, 2013

    Beautiful

    I was worried that this would be just a romance style novel. Thankfully it has aspects of it, but is more about human character. I loved this book so much. It makes you look at life, at situations, and forces that make people change into things they would have thought abhorrant before.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 12, 2012

    I am very interested in finding novels surrounding the Holocaust so it was a give-in that I would select this novel based on the book description but I was in for a huge surprise with this one!!

    I was thouroughly impressed with this novel. It showed a side of the Second World War that we don't normally think about. It follows the women who are left behind in Berlin as most of the men are away at war. I wrapped up in Singred's story and how she became a completly different women in just a few short but life-changing months.
    I thought it was great to see The War from a German's veiw and especially a women's.
    It was thought-provoking and very deeply moving.
    Although the main topic as well as a few accompanying topics were controversial, it was so well written and handled appopriately.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 7, 2012

    Not as described in the overview. subject matter peaked my inte

    Not as described in the overview. subject matter peaked my interest, but i don't think the author could have done a much better job in developing this book so much potential from the women's point of view -- author failed to keep me interested.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 13, 2012

    I looked forward to reading this book each night. a very real

    I looked forward to reading this book each night. a very real look at one angle of WWII. extremely insightful and thought provoking

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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