This week I "stayed in Berlin" (after having read My Berlin Kitchen last week) and read City of Women by David R. Gillham. This novel is set during World War II, and it follows the daily struggles of several women living in an apartment building in the heart of the city. Gillham's premise for this book is what would ordinary people do when placed in extraordinary circumstances? I found myself wondering what choices I'd have made, and I admit that I didn't like dwelling on those questions for very long.
Sigrid Schröder is a late twenty-something soldier's wife who works as a stenographer in the applications department of the Gitschiner Strasse Patent Office. On the surface, Sigrid seems ordinary: She works hard, deals with shortages and rations, lives with her condescending mother-in-law, and escapes to the cinema every chance she gets. Two life-changing events happen to Sigrid while at the cinema. She meets her lover for the first time in the mezzanine, and they use the cinema as a rendezvous spot. Her lover is a Jew, and he has disappeared. Most of their narrative is told through flashback, and Sigrid returns to the cinema night after night in the hopes of seeing him again. One of Sigrid's neighbors, a young woman serving her duty year as a nanny in her apartment building, sits by Sigrid during a film and begs her to swear that they came to the cinema together. Sigrid lies to an SS officer for Ericha, thus entangling Sigrid in Ericha's world of intrigue. Complicating Sigrid's life even further, an SS officer and his very pregnant wife move in across the hall from Sigrid. I suppose that Sigrid's life would have remained very mundane had she stayed away from the theater!
Sigrid continues searching for her lover while helping Ericha hide Jews until safe passage can be bought for them. The suspense in this book is palpable, as is the paranoia and fear. The smallest little gesture can attract the attention of the Gestapo, and some characters who appear trustworthy are anything but. Sigrid's character development and growth is startling, butI can't understand why she's so obsessed with Egon (her Jewish lover). I really didn't like him, and I found it difficult to sympathize with most of the characters in the novel. Please if someone else has read this book explain to me what did Sigrid see in Egon? I don't understand her love for him. Gillham might have done an amazing job spinning a tale about average folks caught in extraordinary circumstances, but what motivated these characters into making (in some cases) extreme decisions?
Gillham is such a good writer, and I will definitely read his books in the future. The only reason I'm giving this book 4 out of 5 stars is really not any fault on Gillham's part, but because I just don't get the relationship between Sigrid and Egon.
What have you been reading this week? Do you have your summer reading list ready yet? :D