City of Women
author : david r. gillham
pages : [hardcover] 392
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…
I was really excited to read this book because I have a fascination with reading books that take place during the WWII time period. This was much different from most other books that I’ve read because it was set in Berlin and barely had any mention of any battles or fighting apart from the occasional bombing coming from English planes overhead. Instead, most of the action is fixated on those who have been left behind in the city as every able man has been sent to fight. Most are in Russia, either never coming back to their families or returning as broken men physically and/or mentally. Citizens are starving. The Gestapo is everywhere. Sigrid learns, repeatedly, that there is nothing else more important in this version of Berlin than being a good German woman.
The book’s characters are those apart from the war. The women and children, mostly, as well as men either too old or injured to fight. And, worse than those left behind are those that are hunted. Any Jewish person, as well as anyone who fights to protect them or who speaks against Germany or the Gestapo. Sigrid, in the very beginning of the novel, is only concerned with herself. Her life is very boring. She doesn’t seem to even mildly like her husband and now she’s forced to live alone with his cranky elderly mother. Still, I always felt detached from her, never very sympathetic. Perhaps it was because I never got an explanation as to why she decided to marry her husband. Social pressure? Real love? I had no inkling of what her true feelings were like throughout most of this book.
That was made even more complex when she constantly dreams for the passion and love she holds for the lover she had taken years before, who is Jewish and has disappeared from her life. The things he does and says makes him everything but romantic to me. I felt pity for Sigrid because of her romantic options. There were no good options. But she kept pining after this man who was more terrible to her than her actual husband was.
I feel like this book had some interesting concepts, but the meandering way in which it was told made it seem much longer than it is–and it’s already a huge book. There were some very interesting details about how people would smuggle their friends or even strangers who were on the run and trying to get out of Germany. I liked the intrigue there, the danger. But there was little build-up to the conclusion of this book, which seemed to come out of nowhere. All of a sudden Sigrid was a completely different character, whereas in the hundreds of pages beforehand her character development had been much slower.
I feel like fans of historical fiction will like this book, particularly if you like the historical period like me. I know this is a book that some others will enjoy much more than I did but, for me, it wasn’t good enough.