Title: City of Women
Author: David R. Gillham
Release Date: August 7, 2012
Publisher: Putnam/Amy Einhorn Books
Genre: Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction
Rating: 4 out of 5
Sigrid Schroder is living with her mother-in-law in Berlin during World War II. Her husband, Kaspar, is away at the front, and Sigrid tries to project the image of a model German citizen. But Sigrid has a desperate secret, one that could ruin everything if it emerged: her secret lover, the man she still can’t stop thinking about, was a Jew. As Sigrid lives her life, she’s pulled into a cause larger than herself and risks everything to make a difference.
The premise of a German hiding Jews during World War II isn’t a new one, so it’s always interesting to see how each author who tackles the topic makes the subject matter their own. In Gillham’s case, he approaches City of Women from a female perspective. The main character, Sigrid, is a liberated, bold woman, but more than that, her entire world is made up of women. The people she meets in the streets, on the stairs of her building, in the movie theater—they’re all women. The men are away, fighting the war, so it’s the women that run the households and make the decisions.
Sigrid is an interesting character, to say the least. She’s very modern for her times; she isn’t intimidated by sexuality and isn’t afraid to stand up for herself. But at the same time, she’s reluctant to get involved in anything dangerous. It’s interesting to see how much the reader sympathizes with Sigrid, how much they understand why she resists getting involved with the Jewish cause. Though readers hope that Sigrid will stick her neck out for those being persecuted by the Nazi regime, it’s easy to understand her anguish, and it’s refreshing that Gillham doesn’t write it off as selfishness. Sigrid’s a complex, layered character. Clichés simply don’t work for her.
City of Women is a slow-burning novel of suspense. It’s definitely very literary; readers looking for a fast-paced thriller (as it’s been called in some reviews, which I find baffling) will not find what they’re looking for in this book. Instead, City of Women is a thoughtful, steadily-paced read. Gillham takes his time setting up his characters, making sure the reader knows Sigrid intimately. There is a level of suspense, simply because the reader knows the book is building to an inevitable climax, but it’s about the reading experience, rather than racing through to find out what happens at the end.
If you’re looking for a beautifully written, thoughtful, character driven read, City of Women is a good choice. Gillham’s prose is lyrical and inviting. He populates the book with many different characters, each unique in his or her own way. His historical details are vivid and bring the time period to life for the reader. Book clubs should definitely take note of this title, as readers will want to dissect the motives of each character long after the last pages are turned.