“I was looking at a Coney Island that was not a corny fair but part of a dazzling metropolis, a boldly imagined world.”
It’s the summer of 1911 when Peggy Batternberg is taken abruptly out of the life she’s attempting to build by her family. Heiress to a significant fortune, Peggy is still beholden to the demands of her family. Mistakes of her father haunt them all and the security of her sister and mother rests with her sister marrying the wealthy Henry Taul. But Henry insists both their families stay the summer at the Oriental Hotel before he’ll set a date. And Peggy has to be there.
What begins as a typical story where wealth struggles against progress quickly morphs into a surreal dreamscape that is so much more. Even though the story takes place a decade before The Great Gatsby, there is a similar melancholy between the two stories. Dreamland is a story about excess and wealth, and like Gatsby, there is a sharp edge to the privilege the elite exude.
Bilyeau takes a different approach to the story. Rather than giving us a view of wealth and privilege from an outsider’s perspective, Peggy is an insider. She has grown up around the opulence and expectations, wrapped and trapped in everything luxurious and stifling. She doesn’t want to participate, desperately craving autonomy in a way someone in her position is rarely afforded. This inside perspective weaves a breathtaking view into the complexity of class politics of the time.
“Workers of New York, dance – You have nothing to lose but your chains.”
By setting Peggy in the Oriental hotel, one of the last majestic hotels of the seaside resorts of New York, we can see the severe clash of society brewing. Coney Island represents the demands of the working class infringing on the perceived luxuries the wealthy had always assumed they were entitled to. It’s seen as a reckless, hedonistic playground, unrepentant and unapologetic for the space it insists on taking up. The wealthy is fighting against this tide, desperate to keep control of the city and the working class of people trying to break free of their domination.
Peggy is keenly aware of who she is expected to be and painfully cognizant of who she wants to be. Her defiance actually plunges her into a crash course of just how out of touch with the working class she is. We get to see her privilege and how she overcomes it, giving her character depth while allowing the reader to accompany her on this deeply personal journey.
“The American people hated robber barons, though every man dreamed of being one. Spurred on by muckraking journalists, the prosecutors and the police were out to get the rich as never before.”
Dreamland is a layered story, part exposition of intense class politics, part murder mystery. But instead of feeling like it’s too much, the mystery only add to the tension of these conflicting worlds. This tension builds until it’s a tangible, tactile experience, urging the reader to turn pages. The prose is the perfect blend of both worlds. It’s enchanting, pulling us into the whirlwind carnival magic. We can smell the sea, taste the popcorn, and hear the screams of delight from all around. At the same time, there is a refined poise to Peggy. Open and curious, but aware of her upbringing, her surroundings, and how much she simply doesn’t know. This wonderful juxtaposition is what makes Dreamland a spellbinding read.
If you love historical fiction, you’ll fall head over heels for this novel. And for those who enjoy a murder mystery that is a little less about the murder and is instead a multilayered journey, you’ll be captivated by the story. Dreamland is a thought-provoking read, full of lush background and characters that pop off the page. I loved every moment.
Thank you Endeavour Media for sending me a copy to read and review.
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The year is 1911 when twenty-year-old heiress Peggy Batternberg is invited to spend the summer in America’s Playground.
The invitation to the luxurious Oriental Hotel a mile from Coney Island is unwelcome. Despite hailing from one of America’s richest families, Peggy would much rather spend the summer working at the Moonrise Bookstore than keeping up appearances with New York City socialites and her snobbish, controlling family.
But soon it transpires that the hedonism of nearby Coney Island affords Peggy the freedom she has been yearning for, and it’s not long before she finds herself in love with a troubled pier-side artist of humble means, whom the Batternberg patriarchs would surely disapprove of.
Disapprove they may, but hidden behind their pomposity lurks a web of deceit, betrayal and deadly secrets. And as bodies begin to mount up amidst the sweltering clamour of Coney Island, it seems the powerful Batternbergs can get away with anything…even murder.
Extravagant, intoxicating and thumping with suspense, bestselling Nancy Bilyeau’s magnificent Dreamland is a story of corruption, class and dangerous obsession.
Nancy Bilyeau was born in Chicago, Illinois, and grew up in Michigan. She studied English literature and American history at the University of Michigan, earning a bachelor’s degree, before moving to New York City to work in the magazine business. She was a staff editor at Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly, Good Housekeeping and InStyle.
In 2010 she sold her first novel, The Crown, to the Touchstone imprint of Simon & Schuster. A thriller set in Tudor England, it was an Oprah magazine pick and nominated for the Crime Writers Association’s Ellis Peters Historical Dagger Award. She wrote two more books featuring the same main character, a Dominican novice named Joanna Stafford.
With her fourth novel, a standalone thriller set in the 18th century art world titled The Blue, she told a story of espionage and obsession with the most beautiful color in the world. In creating Genevieve, the Huguenot artist who goes undercover in a porcelain factor, she drew on her own background. Nancy is descended French Huguenot Pierre Billiou, who came to what was then New Amsterdam in 1665 and built a stone house on Staten Island. It’s the third oldest house in New York State.
Nancy is now turning her writing talent to creating novels set in the New York City of the past. For her fifth novel, Dreamland, she spent time in Coney Island and was assisted by the staff at the Coney Island Museum. She also did research at the New York Public Library, the New York Historical Society, the Museum of the City of New York, and the Brooklyn Historical Society.
Her novella, The Ghost of Madison Avenue, is also set in the New York City of the 1910s, with an Irish American widow who solves a mystery at J.P. Morgan’s sumptuous private library.