Tuesday 29 July 2014

Review ~ City of Dreams by Harriet Steel

The story opens in St Petersburg in 1864 as seventeen year old Anna, the daughter of a prosperous Russian furrier, is swept off her feet in a whirlwind romance with the attractive and elegant Frenchman, Emile Daubigny. In joyful anticipation, Anna leaves her family in St Petersburg and enters married life in the glorious city of Paris, where she expects to have a comfortable and affluent lifestyle amongst the great and the good of this enchanting city. However, Anna’s circumstances change dramatically when her husband Emile mysteriously disappears leaving her both homeless and penniless. As a woman alone, in a man’s world, Anna soon discovers that she has limited choices, and as the Franco-Prussian war looms, Anna must do whatever she can to survive. In a skilful blending of fact and fiction, Anna’s story is told against the back drop of a city in turmoil, the Franco-Prussian war encroaches, not just on the way in which the city of Paris went about its daily business, but it also demonstrated the fact that lone women would be always be considered to be at the mercy of powerful men.

The narrative is nicely written with a fine eye for detail and the author’s obvious love of history and skill at historical research shines throughout the story, so much so, the era really does come alive. The majestic splendour of sharing company with the Emperor Napoleon III during a rendition of La Belle Hélène at the opera house, and of chance encounters with Alexandre Dumas during intimate suppers at the Moulin Rouge, sit quite comfortably against the more colourful and lively description of washday in one of the city’s more salubrious washing sheds. The juxtaposition of vast wealth is counteracted against the descriptions of lives which are affected just as deeply by poverty and squalor. The rich array of characters who flit into and out of the story add an undeniable charm, and yet what shines throughout is Anna’s strength of character and the way in which she was able to keep her dreams alive.

Overall, the story adds a lovely touch of authenticity to a thoughtful and sensitive portrayal of a tumultuous period in French history. The ending of the book lends itself quite nicely to a continuation of the story, as there are still avenues to explore and loose ends which need some clarification. However, I am sure that this feisty heroine will find much to occupy her in her city of dreams.

 My thanks to the author for inviting me to read her novel.


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