Summary and book reviews of City of Women by David Gillham

City of Women

A Novel

by David R. Gillham

City of Women
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  • First Published:
    Aug 2012, 400 pages
    Paperback:
    May 2013, 448 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs

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About this Book

Book Summary

It is 1943 - the height of the Second World War - and Berlin has essentially become a city of women. In this page-turning novel, David Gillham explores what happens to ordinary people thrust into extraordinary times, and how the choices they make can be the difference between life and death.

It is 1943 - the height of the Second World War - and Berlin has essentially become a city of women.

Sigrid Schröder is, for all intents and purposes, 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 who dreams of her former lover, now lost in the chaos of the war. Her lover is a Jew.

But Sigrid is not the only one with secrets.

A high ranking SS officer and his family move down the hall and Sigrid finds herself pulled into their orbit.  A young woman doing her duty-year is out of excuses before Sigrid can even ask her any questions.  And then there's the blind man selling pencils on the corner, whose eyes Sigrid can feel following her from behind the darkness of his goggles.

Soon Sigrid is embroiled in a world she knew nothing about, and as her eyes open to the reality around her, the carefully constructed fortress of solitude she has built over the years begins to collapse. She must choose to act on what is right and what is wrong, and what falls somewhere in the shadows between the two. 

In this page-turning novel, David Gillham explores what happens to ordinary people thrust into extraordinary times, and how the choices they make can be the difference between life and death.

ONE

THE BLIND MAN TAPS his cane rhythmically. Three taps, three taps, three taps to gain the attention of passing Berliners. He is a cadaverous sentry with a shaved pate under an old soldier's cap, selling pencils from a canister strung about his neck. A pyramid of dots is stamped onto the armband he wears, and his round black goggles are like two holes poked through the day, letting the night bleed through. Sigrid fishes out the coin purse from her bag as she emerges from the U-Bahn stairwell, and drops a few groschen into his cup. "Bless you," he rasps in answer to the jangle. "Please choose a pencil." She thanks him, but when he turns his head in the direction of her voice, something behind the blindness of those goggles seems to mark her. She puts the pencil into her handbag and crosses the street at the signal.

Tickets for the matinee are three and a half marks now. Up fifty pfennigs. But Sigrid pays the increase without complaint. Today's feature is titled Soldiers of...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. Why do you think Sigrid helps Ericha at the cinema in the opening of the book? If you had been in Sigrid’s situation, would you have helped Ericha? Would you have become as involved as Sigrid does? With the advantage of hindsight, our perspective is no doubt skewed; since we know the truth behind what was happening in Nazi Germany, how do our answers compare with Sigrid’s bold decisions?

  2. As the story progresses, Sigrid grows more and more involved and takes more and more risks. How does her reasoning for doing so later differ from the reasoning behind her first risky decision in the cinema? What is her motivation for making these increasingly dangerous choices? Desire? Excitement? Conscience?

  3. Discuss the theme of betrayal ...
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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

Gillham's background as a screenwriter is evident throughout the narrative. He describes a bombed-out Berlin with an eye for detail so perfect his readers will have no difficulty envisioning the scenes he's depicting.

Beyond creating vivid scenes, the author does a masterful job of conveying the privations and constant sense of tension in the war-torn city. He illustrates the sacrifices the citizens of Berlin make for the war effort, the rationing and constant calls for donations of food and clothing they endured.

Gillham combines compelling characters and vivid descriptions of war-torn Berlin into a fast-paced plot that comes across as a surprisingly compelling and original story.   (Reviewed by Kim Kovacs).

Full Review Members Only (914 words).

Media Reviews

Minneapolis Star-Tribune

Gillham's debut novel is a meticulously researched and beautifully told love story—and a remarkable look at life in Germany during World War II.

Booklist

Scenes of wartime Berlin are powerfully described, and the lot of the ordinary citizen is artfully shown. Gillham's romantic and suspenseful novel, commandingly written and believable, should be widely read.

Publisher's Weekly

Starred Review. Gillham's transcendent prose... powerfully drawn characters, and the multi-layered dilemmas make his first literary effort a powerful revelation.

Kirkus Reviews

Starred Review. World War II Germany may be familiar ground, but Gillham's novel - vividly cinematic yet subtle and full of moral ambiguity, not to mention riveting characters - is as impossible to put down as it is to forget.

Author Blurb Paula McLain,bestselling author of The Paris Wife
In this moving and masterful debut, David Gillham brings war-torn Berlin to life and reveals the extraordinary mettle of women tested to their limits and beyond. Powerful and piercingly real. You won't soon forget these characters.

Author Blurb Pam Jenoff, internationally bestselling author of The Things We Cherished
Haunting and sensual, City of Women is a story of survival, of the unfathomable choices made and consequences suffered by those pushed to the brink. David Gillham has depicted a little-known aspect of the war with humanity and grace.

Author Blurb Kathleen Grissom, author of The Kitchen House
If you enjoy beautiful story telling, gripping suspense, and a distractingly romantic plot, this is the book for you! An exciting, page turning read!

Author Blurb Margaret Leroy, bestselling author of The Soldier's Wife
City of Women is a big, brilliant, passionate book, a masterful evocation of Hitler's Berlin in all its claustrophobia, duplicity, and fear. This is a thriller of searing intensity. ...I found it utterly compelling.

Reader Reviews

Anita

What would you do?
I read this book based on BookBrowse review and was glad that I did. This is a story of a German housewife in Berlin during WWII whose soldier husband is away fighting. Life in Germany during this period of time, is something that is rarely told. ...   Read More

Linda Miller

City of Women
An amazing book with little known facts about an underground movement during WWII to move the Jewish people out of German by the German women, some of whom their husbands, sons and brothers or lovers were serving in the German army. They risked their...   Read More

Becky H

The City Of Women
I started this book with great hope for a fascinating read. Kirkus and the New York Times promised a tale of love and intrigue. By the 100th page I was bored and didn’t like any of the characters. Sigrid seemed especially shallow. The plot hadn’t ...   Read More

techeditor

a disappointment
CITY OF WOMEN was a disappointment. The dialog and many of the situations are just plain corny. The story is loaded with convenient coincidences. The woman who helps hide Jews in World War II Berlin is, at the same time, a tramp who can't get enough ...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

The Bombing of Berlin

Berlin, Germany's capital city, was home to more than four million citizens at the start of WWII.

Between 1940 and 1945, the city was the target of 363 air raids, with an estimated 20,000 civilians killed during the period. The most significant and organized series of raids occurred from November 1943 to March 1944.

Sir Arthur Harris The controversial mission was led by Sir Arthur "Bomber" Harris, the Commander-in-Chief of Britain's Bomber Command, the branch of the Royal Air Force (RAF) that controlled Britain's bomber forces. Harris felt that a concerted air attack against the German capital would break the morale of its citizens and cause Germany to capitulate. "It will cost us between 400 and 500 aircraft," he is reported to have said, "but it ...

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