For fans of historical fiction, romance, murder mysteries, and real life politics, City of Light by Lauren Belfer is a great read. Her debut novel in 1999, the book made the New York Times Notable Book list.
While the fictional Louisa Barrett is the main character, early 1900’s Buffalo, New York is the real center of the story. Belfer writes about Niagara Falls and the struggle between activists who want the falls to remain pristine and untouched, and pioneers in the power industry who want to divert much of the falls’ water for what they hope will be a booming business.
Louisa Barrett is the headmistress of a prestigious girls’ school, and her position opens up many doors for her in upper class Buffalo society. Each Monday evening she holds a “salon” where her guests meet and discuss issues of the day. Among her guests is Elbert Hubbard, the founder of the Roycroft community, which “glorified individual craftsmanship as opposed to modern mass production” in nearby East Aurora. His part is woven throughout the story as he mentors Louisa.
Louisa has an unfortunate encounter with President Grover Cleveland, and the author’s fictional account of this experience relates to Cleveland’s real life. One of the main plots of the story stems from this meeting.
Vice President Theodore Roosevelt comes to Buffalo for the dedication of the Pan-American Exposition in 1901, and Louisa meets him and his daughter Alice. (The world’s fair, lighted by the power generated by Niagara Falls, is remembered chiefly because President William McKinley was assassinated there.) An African American friend encourages her to participate in meetings that African American women conduct on how to get the organizers of the Exposition to represent the achievements of their race rather than simply portray their role as slaves.
One of Belfer’s concerns is evident in her description of the Infants Ward of the Orphan Asylum. Another friend encourages Louisa to help improve the conditions of the orphanage, and reluctantly she visits the orphanage. Her understanding of the life parentless children lead helps her get involved in a family’s adoption of a baby so the child will not be sent to the asylum.
Louisa, who has overheard an angry discussion between Tom Sinclair, the father of her godchild Grace, and a man soon to come to an icy death, suspects a murder has been committed. Louisa and Sinclair, a widower once married to her best friend, find themselves increasingly attracted to each other. Because they have Grace’s interests in common, they are often together; however, her suspicions about Tom make their relationship difficult.
Many real life characters are introduced into the story, and readers will recognize the names if not their place in Buffalo history. Having recently visited East Aurora, Buffalo, and Niagara Falls before reading City of Light, I realize now how much I missed. Belfer’s story satisfies my love of mysteries and creates enough intrigue to make me want to return to New York to experience the historical places she so lovingly portrays.
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