It is 1943 - the height of the Second World War. With the men taken by the army, Berlin has become a city of women. And while her husband fights on the Eastern Front, Sigrid Schröder is, for all intents and purposes, the model 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 who dreams of her former Jewish lover, who is now lost in the chaos of the war.
Sigrid's tedious existence is turned upside down when she finds herself hiding a mother and her two young daughters - whom she believes might be her lover's family - and she must make terrifying choices that could cost her everything.
©2012 David R. Gillham (P)2012 Penguin Audio
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"Foggy, Ungrounded and Vague"
I read an excellent review for this book in a newspaper and without further research or reading other Audible reviews I bought the book. My mistake. Finally after hours of listening to wandering, detached and vague storytelling I was so frustrated that I resorted to reading the Audible reviews. Several less favorable reviewers hit the nail on the head with their writeups. I won't echo their concerns here as they said it perfectly. Suffice it to say, this story did not feel grounded in history, character development or reality.
Ghost-like characters remain flat shadows that simply fill the space. There is little background provided to explain behaviors and help the reader connect with the story being told. So much sex and so little historic fact grounded in the time sunk this book into the romance genre for me.
My biggest issue was that if you know history you know that Germany was involved in the battle of Stalingrad during this time period. The battle, arguably one of the bloodiest and most disastrous in military history, started in late August 1942 and continued to early February 1943--with some fighting continuing into March. The sixth army, the unit main character Sigrid's husband is fighting with on the eastern front, was destroyed in this battle. I think that it highly unlikely that letters home would either reach Berlin or would be so bland and talk about soup?? They were trapped in Stalingrad durning the winter of 1943 due to Russian flanking maneuvers and were cut off--Berlin attempting airdrops of supplies....really....talk of how the soup was not bad???
In reality, Berlin was probably in turmoil with massive troop movement as they stripped the western front and redeployed soldiers and artillery to join the flagging eastern front. There must have been great action going on in Berlin at the time. Our characters, however occasionally work part-time, constantly go to the movies and wander about bickering with neighbors and in-laws. Ugh--too unbelievable for me. Cannot recommend.
"Just Fine But My High Expectations? Foiled Again!"
"City of Women" is just fine for what it is: a star crossed love story taking place in WWII Germany. Unfortunately, the story lacks many valuable details that would anchor the tale in this time period. Your satisfaction with the story will probably vary according to your expectations. Rereading the books description now, I see the fault lies in me. I will say that narrator Suzanne Bertish is excellent. Her German accent light and pleasant - her intonation catching the rhythms of German speech perfectly.
I bought "City of Women" out of curiosity about the experience of German wives and mothers caring for their families during WWII. Though brought up in a second generation German immigrant family, the war was never discussed. Nor was there any sort of permission to ask questions. No one told me not to, I just got the message loud and clear that WWII was off limits. And yet I've always wondered: what did the average German know about the government's activities? What did they do with what they did know? Did parents send their children off to safer homes in the countryside as did their London counterparts? How did the disappearance of a huge chunks of the population (German men into the army and Jewish everyone to other countries or concentration camps) affect life and morale? There has been much written about wartime Britain but very little about domestic life in wartime Berlin. Unfortunately, other than a cursory mention of ration books and a few trips to a bomb shelter, this novel could take place in almost any historical period where circumstances (pick one or more: war, family disapproval, ethnic hatred, class difference) amps up the drama between two lovers cheating on their spouses.
It begins fairly promisingly and with an air of mystery. Why is protagonist Sigrid Shroeder, married to a German soldier fighting on the Eastern Front, so restless and lonely? One would expect her to be anxious about her husband's welfare, afraid for her friends and neighbors after nightly bombing raids. We quickly learn much of her alienated sad behavior is actually Sigrid mooning about for her vanished married Jewish lover. See (in case you miss the metaphor) her German soldier husband is not only distant physically, but also emotionally, you guys. Sigrid is what my daughters would call a 'guy's girl' not a 'girl's girl.' She's so beautiful and never really connects with the "city of women" left to tend the home fires during the war. Most readers will quickly recognize this novel's supporting cast of characters: impossibly mean mother-in-law, suspicious landlady, foolishly brave sidekick; you can fill in the rest.
There are some acts of heroism and personal risk in the story. However, in previous reading (like the excellent Bonhoeffer biography I devoured earlier this year) I've learned that most actual acts of heroism during this time period seemed to be fueled by moral courage or a philosophical mandate that left the hero no alternative but to confront evil head on. Sigrid's motives are largely unexplored, therefore unconvincing. Is she helping Jews out of guilt for sleeping with a married Jewish man? Is she trying to get out of the house more? It's all sort of vague. Plus, from what we learn of her lover, there isn't much to inspire such slavish romantic obsession. Although she does describe a certain part of his anatomy as "noble" which could be just as easily "novel" since I'm assuming her previous lovers were uncircumcised.
Enough. Sorry. I will end by saying that my experience echoed the much more concise review of "City of Women" written by Katherine of Ontario. For a compelling look at life under German occupation, I recommend "Anne Frank Remembered" by Miep Gies. Ms. Gies was an employee of Jewish business owner Otto Frank who hid the Franks (and many others) in occupied Holland for over 2 years. She fed them by going to several different shops a day, never carrying more than one shopping bag at a time to avoid suspicion. I doubt she had a Jewish lover, but I found reading about her life so deeply inspiring, I didn't miss it at all.
I found this book a new perspective on WW2 and a view that needed exploring, that of everyday women in Berlin. At times the writing was luminous and the author had such insight into the nuances of human interaction, writing about them beautifully.
But, into the second half of the book, I find I'm abandoning it, as listening to it has turned into work. Could it be the unlikability of the main character coupled with too many sex scenes and a slow-moving plot? I'm not sure. She starts an affair with a German officer who seemed like a caricature that anyone sensible would run from and you get no sense of why. I just lost interest, I guess.
At the beginning, I thought this first novel was coming from a great new writer and that may still prove to be the case
"Just not good enough"
The idea of this book has great potential--life in Berlin during WWII when most of the men are gone. What do the women do, how they survive, how they help Jews and others being persecuted, etc. Sadly, though, it falls short. The characters did not draw me in and I found the sub-stories stumbling over themselves, lacking clarity and creating a hope for the end of the book. I'd pass on this one.
"Young women read by old German women?"
I couldn't even get into this book. They have a nice young women on the cover of the book, but has an old German lady narrating. It's not the narrators fault. I could not even listen.
This was a real mess, both from a listening stand point and from a believability POV. Hard to grasp transitions, and resolution felt too contrived.
There was so much sex in this book that it really took away from what could have been a fascinating story about the women of Berlin during the war this book had it all, hiding Jews, the SS coming to search your home but the real story of the time seemed to get lost in all the sex these women were having. There are times when I was really enjoying the suspense of the story and it’s really good then she says something like kiss me to whoever will listen and it just takes me out of the story because it’s so farfetched that while all this stuff is happening that she would say it. I know I sound like such a prude and really I’m not but I am one that would rather not have a description of body parts or who was on top of whom I’m more of a, they went in the bedroom and closed the door type of person and my own imagination can fill in the blanks.
BUT I did like this book I just wish there had been more of the historical story and less sex. I had to keep listening I needed to know Sigrid’s fate and the fate of all the people she has been helping. I did really like her story I’ve read plenty of books about England during the war but never one about Berlin and the women left behind, I hope that the parts about them helping Jews and not totally buying into the Fuhrers beliefs were true but I’m just not sure they had as much sex as the author would like us to believe. Ok enough talk about the sex.
I will say I liked this story, and as I said was fascinated by the setting of Berlin during WWII it makes you wonder how many Germans had Jewish friends, lovers, neighbors and the choices they had to make about these people in their lives would you choose what Sigrid’s mother in law did or what I feel is even more reprehensible what Egon did. But you can’t really judge what you would do in this situation because unless you are there with the threats over your head you have no idea what you would do. I am hoping everything turned out in the end *no spoilers*.
I loved Suzanne Bertish’s narration of this, her voice is like a cross between Lauren Bacall and Ingrid Bergman so throughout this book the images in my head were like an old black & white movie and Sigrid was played my Lauren Bacall and all the other women were Ingrid Bergman. I would definitely listen to this narrator again I truly enjoyed her narration! (PS if you don’t know who I am talking about in this paragraph you need to tune into TCM more often or find the Big Sleep starring Bogie & Bacall and the movie Gaslight for Ingrid Bergman).
3 ½ stars
"The Best Book I have read this year"
First of all kudo's to the narrator. Wonderful! The accents... the feeling, the atmosphere were all created flawlessly by her. I have read many, many books about this period but none like this. None that made me identify so closely with the protagonist. None that made me understand the complex motivations of the various characters for the things they did. It was such a complicated time and this book really made it come alive and made me appreciate the complexity.
I guess my favorite character, besides the protagonist, was her young friend - the young idealistic rebel - who knows what is right and does it.
This book did not make me laugh or cry, even though it has very humorous dialogs, interpreted wonderfully by the narrator and very sad scenes. It did make me wonder how I would have reacted in the various situations. It made me hope that I would have been courageous and selfless and fight for my ideals - but it made me realize that in me also, is the potential for the ultimate betrayal if presented with particular sets of circumstances.
Definitely my book of the year... and my read of the year!!! Cannot recommend enough.
I believe a good book can become a great book simply with the right story teller. Thus is the case here. The story was very good although done before but the narration was the best I have heard in a while. I recommend City of Women for both.
Not your average war story and one of the best listens in a very long time. The author captures the good, bad and ugly of Berlin during the latter half of WW11. It celebrates humanity in all its contradictions. The characters are real and well rounded, the history faithfully re-created and the story compelling. I’ve got to say that the narrator, Suzanne Bertish did an amazing job. I would recommend this book to anyone who anyone who enjoys an exceptional story, told well.
"My favourite listen of 2013"
I bought this on impulse without much research (I'm wary of debut novels usually)... and what a find it turned out to be. This had me glued to my seat throughout.
Beautifully narrated, it is a moving and compelling story of - mostly - women in Berlin during WWII. The story revolves mainly around women helping Jews escape capture by the Gestapo. The range of characters includes nazis, resistance heros and heroines, soldiers and ordinary women - and various mixtures thereof. It puts you face to face with moral complexity and ethical dilemmas. It's a moving love story and an even more moving story of an unlikely friendship. It is all shades of grey; no black and white, no right and wrong. Good guys behaving badly and bad guys behaving heroically. Fallible individuals facing extreme situations in different ways.
It's well written, psychologically insightful and atmospheric. I can't wait to see if David Gillham has further novels in the pipeline.
"A Truly Brilliant Historical Thriller"
David Gillham has burst forth into the ranks of Furst and Le Carre with this perfectly shaped gem of a novel. The story, the characters, the historical detail, and the energy of the story telling, propel you through this amazing book. I've never encountered a novel with such telling and powerful use of detail and such a stunning presentation of a moment in history. I loved it, and it's stayed with me for a long time after. Also the narrator was absolutely perfect! Incredible performance, amazing voices, beautifully read! Sigrid is a wonderful protagonist, and her story is very gripping and ultimately moving. A great sense of women and women's lives as well. Highest Recommendation!
Thought-provoking story that played on my mind even when I wasn't listening to it & has stayed with me since. The characters were engaging and drawn with beautiful detail that brought them to life. But I struggled, really quite a lot at points, with the fact that the narrator couldn't do even a vaguely passable German accent. Credit to her, she kept trying. But at the point where two German characters were in conversation and, mystifyingly, one developed a Welsh accent and the other an Indian accent, I really wished she'd stop trying.
"Powerful and thought provoking"
I have already recommended this as an engaging listen. I really disliked most of the characters to begin with but over time they emerged as well rounded characters dealing with appalling situations as people do- some well, most not so well. Over time the enormous bravery of flawed people made for a fascinating listen.
There is a lot of well written sex!
The twists and turns of the plot were great- I don't want to give anything away...
The protagonist of course
Lots of moments especially the friendships of women and the humanity and selflessness they showed
Persevere beyond the first couple of chapters as this is necessary scene setting- the mundane life of citizens at war
"Slow but good in the end"
I found the start of the book a bit slow going, but after chapter 4 got into all the characters and enjoyed it from then on. The narrator was very good, and portrayed the different character very well.
"Little heard story of the German resistance"
Very powerful story of the German resistance in Berlin during WW2. Well narrated. Left me thinking of it for days and how I would have acted in their shoes.
I would certainly read it, whether I would listen again is another matter. What should be a really engaging story is sullied by a somewhat cold delivery. I'm not sure whether that's because the lead character is cold and aloof, or whether it's the delivery that has he words delivered exceedingly forcefully, which makes you feel she's almost shouting at the others in the story.
That said, the gradual immersion in the lot works well, and the slow realisation of the propaganda the citizens are being fed works well, and the characters surrounding her are well rounded and believable. Just a shame about that steam-rollering disconnection.
The slight and yet exceedingly strong willed young lady who leads with bravery, courage and not a little recklessness our heroine to act rather than wallow.
Cold, disconnected, confident
No, it wasn't that engaging, although as you get into the story of Auntie and the undercover world, it certainly becomes much more engaging.
Yes I would certainly recommend this book to a friend with confidence they would enjoy it.
Black Roses. The intrigue of the inside workings of the ordinary good german during WW2.
Suzanne Bertish is a stunning narrator. She portrayed the v. nasty mother in law in genius fashion. I loathed the old cow as she intended me to. I would look out for books narrated by her in the future.
I will leave it a month or two and definitely listen to this again as it is many layered.
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