Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Review: City of Darkness, City of Light by Marge Piercy

During a recent trip to Paris, I took a French Revolution walking tour. (Paris-walk.com - highly recommend them, great way to learn more about the city's history.) Before this tour, my knowledge of the French Revolution was fairly limited. Oh, I knew all about Marie Antoinette and the guillotine and I'd visited the Conciergerie and Versailles on previous visits and learned a bit then. But to me, I had this grand idea that it was simply about the people of France deciding they wanted to rule themselves, and so they got rid of the royalty and lived happily ever after, or something like that. All very noble and patriotic and Les Mis (and yes, I know Les Miserables is not actually about the French Revolution, but rather an event that happened later.) Anyway, during the tour, we learned a bit about Danton and Condorcet and Marat, saw the cafes places where they met and plotted their moves, as well as where Marat died and was put on display in a bathtub. I learned enough to make me want to know much more.

Lucky me, I was recently sent a copy of Marge Piercy's City of Darkness, City of Light. I'd hoped to read it before my trip to France, but I hadn't gotten around to it. I'd been back from Paris for a week, and missing the city, I was reading only books set in Paris. With Bastille Day approaching, this book seemed like the perfect choice.

This book took over my life. I couldn't stand to put it down. I read it in the morning while on the treadmill and at night before I went to sleep, I carried my kindle with me everywhere, fitting in a chapter or two every chance I had. If I wasn't reading this book, I was thinking about it. When I slept, I was dreaming about it. And though I've been trying to ignore the news lately, it's nearly impossible and I kept finding myself comparing and contrasting the current state of politics with what was happening in France after 1789.

This book focuses on several different characters who played important roles in the Revolution. They have different backgrounds, different interests and different reasons for being drawn to the fight. For some it's ideology and for others, survival and practicality. The author does an excellent job of presenting these figures as very real people, people who have friends and family and lovers. Yes, they want to overthrow the monarchy, but they also want to be able to go to a nice home at the end of the day, or meet up with friends for conversation and a few drinks in the evening, and spend some quality time with their loved ones. We see these characters' lives get caught up in the Revolution, affecting their home and work lives, forcing them to make decisions they never thought they'd have to make. They all entered into this with seemingly good intentions, but the Revolution took on a life of its own. Eventually these people who thought they were saving their country find themselves victims of their own creation.

The book is written in such a way that the events are felt at a very personal level. You hurt for these characters as their lives begin to fall apart, heroes become the hunted as political power changes hands and all the things for which they fought and believed ends up being the ruin of many of these people.

What I especially liked about this book was the focus on the women involved in the Revolution. The women, desperate to feed their families, provided much of the initial fuel behind the Revolution. But as the movement gained momentum, as often happens, the men took over and suggested the women stay home and take care of their families. For a while though, they had some power and they created some much needed change - expanding rights for women that they had been previously denied. But revolutions are messy and sacrifices are made, leaving many wondering if their efforts had been in vain.

I liked this book so much. When I finished it though, I felt a bit lost. I'd become so engrossed in it for the past few days and then... over. Done. And my kindle was saying I had a half hour left in the book - but it turned out to just be a list of characters. (Which would be very useful had I realized it was there, probably says so at the beginning, but I wasn't paying attention. Will keep that in mind when I re-read book, which I'm sure I will do eventually.) I'm tempted to seek out other books about these characters, but at the same time, I feel so close to this version of these people, I'm not sure if I'll like reading others authors interpretations of them.

I do feel as if I have a much better understanding of the French Revolution and I have a new respect for the women involved, whose roles are often overlooked in history. Gives me a new perspective on France then and today.

I highly recommend this book to those with an interest in the French Revolution.

I received this book via NetGalley.

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