Review: The City Beautiful
The City Beautiful
by Aden Polydoros
This book is an impressive feat of YA Jewish historical fantasy. Polydoros builds a rich world for his characters to inhabit and navigate, full of details on everything from food to clothing to the nuances of regional Yiddish accents. The story keeps pace and develops a compelling romance and mystery without sacrificing historical context. Most rewarding of all is the core cast of characters, whose struggles with belief, belonging, love, and ambition are fully realized and remain compelling through the course of the narrative.
This book is a strong contender for a Sydney Taylor. Almost every speaking character of significance is Jewish. The level of research and commitment to portraying Jewish life and customs in a particular historical moment is quite singular in the YA landscape. Turn-of-the-century Ashkenazic immigrant stories may be familiar territory for Jewish children’s literature, but queer dybbuk murder mysteries are not. The treatment of the history is fresh and atmospheric, and avoids the traditional tropes and cliches that come with tenement-era narratives.
Beyond being just positive, Polydoros’s book brings a genuine “cool” factor to his rendering of Ashkenazic Jewish history and Yiddishkeit. In The City Beautiful, traditional Jewish life and Ashkenazic customs are not something characters are trying to escape from, but are built into the plot in interesting, exciting ways. The Yiddish isn’t played for laughs, and the protagonists have the range to be both Jewishly-literate and capable of throwing a punch. The City Beautiful covers a range of Ashkenazic identities and relationships to language, religious observance, culture, and politics, and has a clear sense of how those are shaped by the specifics of one’s immigration story. Moreover, Alter’s sexuality, from his crush on Yakov to his past and potential future with Frankie, is handled in very moving, hopeful ways on the page.
This book is a must-buy, an essential addition to any Jewish library.
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