Book Review: City of Women

Author: David R. Gillham

Publisher: Penguin Group, Amy Einhorn Imprint, August 2012

Genre: Historical Fiction

My Rating: A

Historical fiction centered around World War II has been popular now for several years. I’ve enjoyed the books I’ve read in the genre. Most of them are centered around characters in England and America. This is the first novel I’ve read where the story looks at life in Germany during the war.

It’s too easy to see the Germans as the enemy in that war and lump them off in a corner under that title. But, as a student of human nature, I know the country had to have some very good people living there. Who were they, what were they doing, or thinking? In other words, what was life like for them?

Through the creative eyes of David Gillham I saw a very real Berlin in 1943. He told the story of an average woman, similar to me, who was trying her best to survive and make the best of a very bad situation.

Sigrid Schroder’s banker husband had been sent to fight on the Eastern front. She had a job in the patent office, but came home to a nasty, fault-finding mother-in-law. Food and clothing and all the other basics are in short supply. Also, the British and Americans have begun bombing the city so Sigrid must spend a lot of time in the bomb shelter. The joy that used to be a daily fact of life in Berlin is gone. Now the city stinks.

An odor of human dank deepens. A familiar bouquet by now. It is the smell of all that is unwashed, stale, and solidified. It is the smell that has replaced the brisk scebt of the city’s famous air. The ersatz perfume of Berlin, distilled from all that is the chemically treated and synthetically processed. Of cigarettes manufactured deom crushed acorns, of fifty-gramcakes of grit-filled soap that clean nothing. Of rust and clotted plumbing. Damp wool, sour milk, and decay. The odor of the home front.

Sigrid is very aware of what’s going on in her daily life. She has wrapped a shell of suspicion around herself. She has to. It’s very difficult to tell who to trust. And then — Sigrid meets Erica, a young woman who secretly lives by a different standard. Erica enlists Sigrid’s help in some minor things. But, Sigrid’s curiosity and her caring spirit soon lead her into activities that are dangerous.

I loved this book. I finished it a week ago and I am still thinking about it. I felt as if I were really in Berlin in 1943. I actually woke up one night after dreaming I was actually in the story. It (the dream) was frightening but I was so caught up in the story that it was in my subconscious.

The overall atmosphere of the novel was, of course, dark. After all, it’s war-time Germany. I was suspicious of every new person who came on the scene. Neighbors, co-workers, and even family members might turn you in to the Gestapo.

I expected a city filled mostly with women to be “catty.” I didn’t see that here, so I’ll jump in with my own cattiness: Sigrid’s sex-life bordered on slutty. She only loved one man (not her husband), but managed to have sex with several others. I can forgive her for that. It’s war-time and the only males in Berlin are boys, old men and severely wounded soldiers.

I’ve already suggested this book to numerous people. I have a hunch it’s going to be very popular. This is an Amy Einhorn Imprint book, which I probably should have told you in the beginning. I don’t know how she does it, but every Amy Einhorn book I’ve read so far is a winner. I’d like to thank Lydia at the Imprint for my review copy. For more information on the Amy Einhorn Perpetual Reading Challenge, visit Beth Fish Reads.

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10 Responses to Book Review: City of Women

  1. kaye says:

    I like looking at things from a different perspective and this book does sound like a winner. A few years ago I read a book called “A Girl Named Eva”. I was so used to stories about Jews and Germans that I was unprepared for the story in the pages of this book. It was about children taken from homes because they met the qualifications for the “super-race” that Hitler was trying to create.

  2. I have this in print and audio and wonder which way I should experience it. It sounds wonderful. Have you read Skeletons at the Feast by Chris Bohjalian? It’s set in Germany during World War II as well and has stayed in my mind a long time.

  3. Margot says:

    Thank you both, Kaye and Kathy, for the suggestions of other books from the German perspective. I’m very interested in checking these out.

    Kathy: I have both audio and print too. I started in the print version and then switched over to audio. It was very well done. For me, audiobooks seem to get right into my psyche, especially in a story like this one.

  4. YVONNE says:

    Hi Margot,

    This sounds like a great book,written from an entirely new perspective and a definite for my list.

    It is also interesting that it should be writen by a male author and I am wondering whether that enhanced your reading experience, as you so obviously enjoyed reading this one.

    I love the personal and chatty way in which you carried out your review as well, almost as though you were in the same room with me.

    Thanks for sharing and for the recommendation.


  5. Barbara says:

    Although I’ve been reading WW II novels set in Germany for several years, this one (thanks for the quote) seems to give the reader a better way to experience what Germany was really like for its residents. I’m putting this one on my list for sure.

  6. If you want to read a WWII book from the point of view of a German, you should check out Shadows Walking by Douglas R. Skopp. I’m still haunted by that book; it made me feel things I didn’t want to feel.

    As for City of Women, I’m definitely going to have to read it. I haven’t seen anything but glowing reviews!

  7. Beth F says:

    I loved this book, as you know.

  8. Staci says:

    I loved your thoughts on this one. I read a book that made me dream about it too and it was scary!! That makes me believe that it’s pretty powerful and also an amazing story! I might just buy this one!

  9. Margot, thank you for such a thoughtful and spicy review. I’m very appreciative of all the terrific feedback I’ve been getting from bloggers and readers. And let me quickly add my thanks to the incredible Amy Einhorn, and my agent, Rebecca Gradinger, who helped me whip CITY OF WOMEN into shape for everyone to enjoy. – David

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