City of Light
Lauren Belfer, 1999
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. (From the publisher.)
• Where—Rochester, New York, USA
• Reared—Buffalo, New York
• Education—B.A., Swarthmore College; M.F.A., Columbia
• Currently—lives in New York City, New York
Lauren Belfer is an American author from Buffalo, New York, where she attended the Buffalo Seminary, which would later become the girls boarding-school depicted in her debut novel, City of Light, about Buffalo, NY during the Pan-American Exposition.
At Swarthmore College, she majored in Medieval Studies. After graduating, she worked as a file clerk at an art gallery, a paralegal, an assistant photo editor at a newspaper, a fact checker at magazines, and as a researcher and associate producer on documentary films. She has an M.F.A. from Columbia University.
Her debut novel, City of Light, published in 1999, was a New York Times bestseller and a bestseller in Great Britain. It has been translated into seven languages.
Her second novel, A Fierce Radiance, is a romantic historical thriller which follows the development of penicillin during World War II in New York City. The novel was published in June, 2010.
Belfer's fiction has also been published in the Michigan Quarterly Review, Shenandoah, and Henfield Prize Stories. Her nonfiction has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the Washington Post Book World, the Christian Science Monitor, and elsewhere.
Belfer is interviewed as an author/historian for the PBS documentary on Elbert Hubbard entitled Elbert Hubbard: An American Original. (From Wikipedia.)
What matters...is the vivid sense of the time and place that Ms. Belfer has created...[including] the weight of a social order in which commerce alone conferred power....Whether we've progressed from those times remains highly debatable. But in her powerfully atmospheric book Ms. Belfer makes them seem real and very far away, and at the same time eerily familiar and relevant to the present.
Christopher Lehmann-Haupt - The New York Times
[A] huge, sprawling portrait of the United States at the turn of the last century....At its heart is a brilliantly realized set piece that is wickedly relevant to the headlines of that era, as well as to this one....An ingenious first novel.
Ellen Feldman - The New York Times Book Review
City of Light is like the Niagara River, which is so central to the story. All appears calm as the book begins. By the time you realize you've been pulled into its swift currents, the story moves urgently through its 518 pages. It is long but fast...[I]t's breathtaking in its achievement. Belfer's first novel is a remarkable blend of murder mystery, love story, political intrigue and tragedy of manners.
Eriak Brady - USA Today
This book is part mystery and part historical melodrama, fluently mixing fact and fiction, with the sort of Victorian plot devices that gaurantee a straight-through, sleepless read. The novel is no Ragtime, but it's close-an operatic potboiler, fat with romance, politics and scandal. 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.
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 murdermystery 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.
1. In City of Light, the upper echelons of Buffalo society all get what they want by cultivating an "acceptable" image under which they can do what they want, regardless of its moral implications. How does this rationalize their behavior, as well as hide it?
2. Faced with a social order that demanded this "acceptable" behavior, was there any other way Louisa could react when faced with a crisis—such as Millicent's abduction or the vandalization of her school?
3. Are there any main characters in this story who don't follow society's code? Who and why?
4. Louisa likes to think of her students as "a generation of subversives who took up their expected positions in society and then, day by day, bit by bit, fostered a revolution." Do you think that this is what she achieved with her students? Was it the best way she had to help the social progress of women?
5. Why do none of the members of Buffalo society become involved with the faction that is worried about the affects of the power plant on the environment?
6. In protecting Grace, was Louisa doing the right thing? Did her focus on the little girl blind her, impairing her judgement, as with her decision to not turn Susannah Riley in?
7. Would Louisa have been better off moving away from Buffalo and merely keeping in touch with the Sinclair family? Would Grace have been better off?
8. If Abigail's mother wanted to keep her daughter's child far away from Abigail and from scandal, why didn't she have him adopted in a family far away, instead of sending it to the asylum?
9. Why does Mr. Rumsey let Louisa know that he planned her meeting with Cleveland? Would she have been better off never knowing?
10. Why does Mr. Rumsey seem surprised that Louisa might have suffered from her experience of conceiving Grace—or that she feels badly about her "loss of innocence?"
11. In 1901, Buffalo is one of the richest, most sophisticated cities in the nation. How does this influence Louisa's life, and the lives of the wealthy citizens of the city? What do they hope to achieve on the brink of a new century?
12. What motivates Tom Sinclair's dreams of electrical power? Is it the vision of industrial progress, the hope of personal fame and wealth, or something else?
13. Why was Francesca Coatsworth able to maintain her "alternative" lifestyle and still be such an influential member of society?
14. Why do you think Francesca allowed Sarah to disappear into Singapore after she confessed her crimes?
(Questions issued by publisher.)
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