When Peggy Batternberg’s family bids her drop her plebeian job at a bookshop and join them for a summer holiday at the Oriental Hotel, she fumes at the idea. But wealthy Jewish financiers are not used to being denied, and out of consideration for her younger sister’s feelings, Peggy bows to the decree. The aristocratic beaches of 1911 New York and the unbridled license of the Coney Island carnivals form the backdrop for the suspenseful drama that unfolds.
Stifled by her family’s expectations and by the heat of the New York summer, Peggy supports her sister Lydia’s tenuous engagement to playboy Henry Taul with ill grace. Dismayed by the debauchery of her cousins and uncle, she attempts to keep her younger brother Lawrence away from their influence. When she abandons restrictive chaperones to explore the seedy carnival Dreamland on her own, a chance encounter with a Futurist artist named Stefan upends her world. What would it be like to escape her gilded prison and find happiness with a man unafraid to work hard, dream dauntlessly, and love unstintingly?
Daydreams turn into nightmares when three young women are found murdered in the vicinity of the hotel. As the police begin a manhunt, clever Peggy realizes that the women all share some connection to her family, to her world, and to her relationship with Stefan–if only she can discover what before it is too late….
I’ve clearly been reading too much “fluff” lately because my first thought when cracking open this novel was “Ahhh! Now here at last is some good writing.” As usual, Bilyeau’s turn of phrase is exquisite. The milieu of the story is far-reaching and immersive (covering everything from unrest in the Balkans to Sigmund Freud’s interpretation of dreams). The pacing of the story is slow but suspenseful, unhurried but captivating (except for the ending, which felt rushed and a little unsatisfactory).
The character that I most enjoyed in this book was the protagonist, Peggy. I noticed that some other reviewers felt her personality to be contradictory (how she wanted to be a modern, independent woman but agreed to abandon her job and principles to go on a lavish holiday), but I enjoyed the way that she tempered her desire for independence with her consideration for her sister’s happiness. The relationship between Peggy and Lydia was one of my favorite parts of the book, their fierce loyalty to each other as they navigate the strictures of society and family.
As far as secondary characters go, Henry Taul was also well-portrayed, with his manic personality and perplexing desires, but I wish the story had been more finely honed to sharpen the images of the other characters. Ben, Peggy’s enigmatic elder cousin, especially needed more time to reveal himself. Supposedly he was a dangerous man, but how? Why? Stefan, the Serbian hot-dog-seller/artist, also felt underdeveloped, and in many ways, completely overshadowed by Peggy. Perhaps the book needed to be longer, or perhaps it needed less time spent on the 1911 atmosphere (a remarkable “character” in and of itself) and more time spent on fleshing out the people.
Dreamland is sure to enchant those who love the glamour and lights of a Great Gatsby-esque world, those who love the clash of classes in a rigidly-tiered society, and those who simply love a good dose of suspense in their historical novels. The cover, in and of itself, is reason enough to get this book. And if Nancy Bilyeau is a new author to you, check out my review of her recent book, The Blue, as well!
Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this title from the publisher via NetGalley. All opinions expressed in this review are my own.