City of Darkness, City of Light, by Marge Piercy*****

cityofdarknesscityoflightPiercy is a legend among feminists, and her writing was pivotal in my own development during the late 1970s and early 1980s as a newly-hatched adult. When this title, a novel based on the French Revolution, came out in 1996, I put it on my Christmas list and read it hungrily once I received it. When I noticed that it was released digitally this spring, I scored a digital copy from Open Road Integrated Media and Net Galley in exchange for this honest review. It’s a novel that is definitely worth reading twice.

Piercy is brilliant not only in bringing characters to life—and she did a prodigious amount of work before doing so, reading piles of biographies, memoirs, letters and other documents—but also in conveying the reader to the time and place In question. I think it’s because of this that her novel helped me to understand how such an amazing, incredible thing, the revolution, the democratic impulse that overthrew a monarchy, could end so badly. Dry history texts chronicle the “excesses” of the Jacobins. Say what? How meaningless is that? And it is by being able to see the roles played by key figures in the revolution, including the women that are usually left out, that I can see why the leadership degenerated as it did. An inexperienced working class with no background in how to organize a struggle ultimately paid the price, but in the end, the nation was still better off than it had been beforehand.

Using the grammar and conversational conventions of today for easier access to a popular audience, Piercy transports us back to a time when a life expectancy was less than fifty years for most people; open sewers flowed through the streets of Paris, causing horrible illnesses and a high infant mortality rate; and a starving seven year old child could be publicly hanged for stealing bread.

In fact, the bread riots led by the women of Paris were where it all began.

One thing readers should know if they read this novel digitally is that there is a glossary of sorts, a long list of characters and a few basic facts to identify them, but it’s at the back of the book, so you will want to go over it before you start and then refer back to it when you find yourself confused. The topic is huge, and you may need this cheat sheet, so it’s good to know it’s there. There are so many historical characters here, and if you aren’t fluent in this area, you may lose track of Robespierre, Danton, Madame Roland, and oh of course, Marat. And back then, Camille was a man’s name!

Piercy tells the story using the points of view of a wide range of figures important to this struggle. She gives a fair hearing to the perspectives of those that stood left, right, and center in this conflict, denying a sympathetic ear only to royalty—and even Marie Antoinette is treated with surprising sympathy. I came away feeling as if I knew so much more about the French Revolution and its terrible conclusion when I had read it, and rereading it was even more helpful, because it’s a lot to digest all at once, even if one is already aware of the broad contours of this pivotal time in French history.

When I love a book hard, I push it at everyone that comes within my reach, and I have pushed this particular novel at a lot of people over the years. Given how many times I loaned out my own (purchased) hard cover copy, it’s surprising that it isn’t falling apart, and maybe even more surprising that it’s always been returned to me.

Whether you prefer to read digitally or to purchase a paper copy, City of Darkness, City of Light is the most readable, accessible treatment of the French Revolution that I have seen. The fact that Piercy includes the key role played by women, both among the toiling masses and the elite salons of the intelligentsia makes it even better.

Recommended wholeheartedly to anyone that wants to understand the French Revolution!

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