The blind man taps his cane rhythmically. Three taps, three taps, three taps to gain the attention of passing Berliners.
“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 . . .”
The first few pages of City of Women were slow and confusing, but after that, the book quickly got interesting; I love World War II fiction, and this one was very good. The fact that it was written in the present tense was unusual; historical fiction usually isn’t, considering that it’s historical. Of course, the use of present tense has the effect of making the book and the story feel much more immediate, as if it’s actually unfolding right in front of your eyes, as if the events could perhaps be changed. If everything is told in the past, one kind of knows that it’s already finished, and one is powerless to change anything. Of course, it’s really the same in present tense; it’s just an illusion.
This book is all about appearances and what lies beneath them. Sigrid seems so dutiful, doing what she’s supposed to do, but like the girl who she helps at the beginning of the book, she has secrets that she’s hasn’t shared with anyone. It’s also about hidden desires, of which Sigrid has many. Her friend Renate openly cavorts about with men, but Sigrid hides her past and the fact that she’s lonely. I must say that I didn’t like the secret romance at all; the man seemed like a jerk and he didn’t seem to respect or even love Sigrid very much at all.
City of Women was way more steamy than I expected it to be; sex is basically what the entire first half focuses on. It doesn’t have a huge amount of historical detail, but just enough that the book doesn’t feel flat. City of Women focuses as you might expect on the women left in Berlin and how they’re coping with the war and with loneliness, each in their different ways.
The descriptions of the rationing and the wounded were really compelling. “The phrase books vanished from the shops, along with such items as soap, tooth powder, sewing needles, eggs, and wool socks. And though many boys did return home, they did so missing limbs.” (pg. 54). There’s not much food at all. Sigrid, living with her mother-in-law, subsists mostly on soup.
City of Women is a great blend of history and fiction. There are perhaps too many novels set during World War II, and City of Women attempts to offer a fresh perspective. I don’t know if it entirely succeeded, but I enjoyed reading about the war from a German perspective, albeit a German who is not fond of Hitler and his regime. Although The Book Thief also does that, and is a better book.
I really enjoyed the whole plot with Fraulein Kohl or Ericha. Just like Sigrid, she has a lot of secrets, and she causes a lot of trouble for Sigrid too. At one point, she steals some winter clothes that Sigrid and her mother-in-law were donating to for soldiers at the front. I was annoyed at her for that; Ericha seemed kind of clueless that she was jeopardizing so many people’s lives besides her own. Sigrid eventually becomes involved in the Underground movement, and that for me was where the book really picked up. That was the best part of the book. I didn’t care to read about Sigrid’s affair.
City of Women is certainly a work of historical fiction for adults, but it’s worth reading and I enjoyed it. Thanks to Berkley Trade for sending me a review copy of the paperback edition.