‘City of Dreams’ by Harriet Steel is a fine work of historical fiction. The book is impeccably written and edited and brings us right into the world of Paris in the 1860s at the time of the Franco Prussian war. Our heroine, Anna, begins her life in a well-off family, marries a very rich man and then, when he goes bankrupt, enters a very different life where she struggles to survive. Life is difficult, and then war comes.
Though there is romance in this, it is not a historical romance as we would normally think of it because there is no one man, rather a series of men. Nevertheless, we do get the feeling that one of these passing beaus is the man for Anna, and since this is the beginning of a series of books, we are left with potential for the future.
Anna comes across as a very real character and I soon found myself caring deeply for her. Secondary characters were also well rounded and well rendered.
I’m not sure if the author has this in mind or not, but it has the feeling of the first in an epic series. It is fairly slow moving and spends its time on character development and historical detail, but I never once wanted to put the book down. It reads like the story of a real woman’s life, not a fictional one embellished with lots of action for modern readers. If you want to immerse yourself in Paris during this time period then this is the book for you. If you want heart pounding romance or high action, you won’t find it here.
Anna just wants to survive in as comfortable a way as possible, and she uses whatever opportunities come her way to achieve her goals. The book would satisfy a wider range of people if this goal and the thing(s) that hindered her achieving her goals had been given more emphasis. That said, any embellishment on what we have may seem somewhat contrived in comparison. The strength of this book is in its apparent reality. We get a very real sense of what it must have been like for women such as Anna, and it reminded me of how far the western world has come in breaking down women’s dependence on men for their livelihood.
The war scenes near the end of the book are quietly powerful. There is no heart-pounding excesses here, just a very real account of the way it was for the people in a city under siege both politically and militarily, and though Anna is not personally, threatened she comes close enough to create a sense of threat.