Review: City of Women by David R. Gillham

August 6, 2012 Amy Einhorn Books, Historical Fiction, Putnam, Review 9

  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam (August 7, 2012)
  • ISBN-10: 039915776X
  • Source: Publisher

Set in 1943 Berlin, the midst of World War II, the majority of the men have been sent to the battlefront. Berlin has essentially become a city of women: wives, mothers, sisters of German soldiers living off of rations and meager wages to get by. Sigrid Schröder is one of these women, her husband Kasper shipped off to Russia to fight in the war. Singrid holds down a job, reluctantly putting up with her meddling mother-in-law. Despite the tough economic times and food shortages, Singrid continues to seek solace and an escape from the crumbling, war-torn world around her.

It is at the theater that she meets Egor and the two embark upon a sensual love affair. Infidelity was never something Sigrid ever thought she was capable of committing, but in a war savaged by war, frequented by air raids, her body was one thing of which she had control.  Her affair is just the cusp of the risks Sigrid takes on, for after she befriends Ericha, the young nanny for other tenant in her building, she soon finds herself immersed in the practice of protecting Jews and other individuals from detection by the Gestapo. Sigrid, a woman once so set on creating the perfect home for her perfect German husband now forced to risk her life to protect dozens of individuals, families who are strangers to her. The risk is high, Sigrid has to watch every step she takes, every person she confides in. For all it takes is a accusation of crimes against Hitler for her to be carted away to an internment camp.

One might wonder why Sigrid would risk all this, her life, her future with her husband. Admittedly, her marriage was never a happy one. She conceded to living with her mother-in-law after she miscarried their first and only child. She goes to work daily at the patent office, a thankless job overseen by a brutal, uncaring woman. The steps she takes to ensure the freedom of these individuals may seem small, but to Sigrid they are huge. In a world she has little control over, in a life she’s forced to live in, this is her way of having an impact on the fate of these poor individuals.

What was truly remarkable about this novel was the level of sensuality amidst a cold, dark & brutal Berlin. The feelings she has for Egor are genuine, the two of them relying on their sessions of lovemaking to get them through the tragedies of war. Their love is a forbidden one, and not simply because Sigrid is married. Sigrid feels dead inside, her happiness crushed by the war surrounding her. This affair bakes her feel alive again, makes her feel as though she is needed, wanted.

Another paramount theme within this novel is the idea of trust. Sigrid had to be incredibly discriminating when it came to who she could rely upon, who she could talk to, who she could confide in. Several times throughout the novel her decisions were tested and she learned, unfortunately, what it meant to be betrayed by those for which she had great respect.

I was truly amazed at how well the author captured the life and beliefs a young female. Obviously not a woman himself, he so eloquently captured her essence, her feelings and emotions. While reading the novel, I frankly forgot it was written by a man, a true testament to his skill of writing.

City of Women is a brilliant, completely unique perspective on World War II and the individuals (while fictional) who survived it. That said, I wouldn’t refer to this as a war story but instead a personal story of love, perseverance and hope. Not a small book at 400 pages, I found myself unable to put it down, staying up until literally the early hours of the morning to finish it. Highly, highly recommended.


9 Responses to “Review: City of Women by David R. Gillham”

  1. Farin
    Twitter: miss_farin

    A lot of people have brought up how convincingly David Gillham captured a woman narrator. It really was amazing.

  2. Harvee
    Twitter: BookDilettante

    The thought came to me as I read your comments: during the war, with the men away, what else is there for those remaining but infidelity and sensuality? Sounds like another historical novel I’d love to read.

  3. Heather
    Twitter: BookAddictHeath

    This sounds absolutely fantastic. I love the idea of a different perspective of the war – especially since I’ve read tons of books involving World War 2, I’d love a new take on it.

  4. Sandy
    Twitter: youvegottaread

    I just loaded this one on my iPod. I’ve heard great things about it, and can’t wait to dig in. I’m hoping the narrator delivers.

  5. sharongracepjs

    Endorse above about his ability to create a complicated young woman, strong and flawed, and inhabit her mind. She was believable and relatable, but not perfect! Also Kaspar was so fascinating to me, that we could feel empathy for him after the war. And even though he’s a nazi and a no-longer loved husband, we do not despise him – his presence in the final scenes was heart-stopping. Their relationship was one of the most remarkable parts of the book, I thought!

  6. Howard Sherman
    Twitter: howardasherman

    Harvee made a good point — what’s a woman to do with such bleak surroundings? Emotions don’t go away and passion must meet its peak. City of Women is a book I would cruise right by online or in the bookstore but your review of it makes me want to read it and gain some insights I know I lack now. The fact it was written by a guy makes it all that more compelling. Without a second glance this book would, sadly, fall into the chick lit cubby hole for no good reason.

  7. Beth F
    Twitter: BethFishReads

    Totally agree that this is an awesome read and not “just another WWII book.” Now that my review / comments are up, I can start to read what everyone else said. 🙂