In the City by the Lake was a novel that took my utterly by surprise. It was a historical novel with a mafia-linked MC, but it was tender, it was surprising, and it broke my heart. The story follows the main character through nearly 10 years of his life, and the events he goes through are sometimes shocking, sometimes hot, and sometimes a little bit gutwrenching.
When Viktor Mikhailov follows in his father’s footsteps and joins the relatively insignificant Russian mob, he is given an assignment none of his comrades want, yet Viktor cannot help but be secretly pleased. The city is a cesspool of organized crime, with several outfits fighting for a piece of the Prohibition pie, and Viktor’s slice is the openly gay Towertown. Tasked with providing whiskey to the queer clubs he covertly frequents, Viktor gains monetary wealth while finding himself in an unconventional relationship with his top client’s muse, an enigmatic redhead named Calvin Connolly.
Calvin—along with throngs of idealists who pack the pansy parlors—believes they stand on the precipice of a revolution, but Viktor is not convinced. A skeptic by both nature and lack of nurture, Viktor questions the conservative culture’s capacity for true change while hoping that broad acceptance is imminent. Perhaps then he could accept the parts of himself he hides.
While the repeal of Prohibition leads to financial issues for Viktor, a Depression-era disapproval of the liberal lifestyles of the 1920s initiates a slew of deeper problems. Sensationalized news stories regarding a rash of sex crimes paint homosexuals as depraved monsters and precipitate numerous laws against the queer community. The government’s intent is not only to eradicate pansy parlors—but homosexuality entirely. When an unexpected arrest forces Viktor to arrive at a decision he feels unprepared to make, he struggles with the ramifications.
IN THE CITY BY THE LAKE is a work of historical fiction focused on the emotional journey of a twenty-one-year-old closeted mobster living in Chicago during the LGBT emergence of the late 1920s to early 1930s, a period deemed the “Pansy Craze.”
Taylor has always loved to write, believing that life has the possibility to be its most beautiful when it’s portrayed on the pages of a book. Feeling the need to create and liberate in the midst of the political landscape, she began to write novels that focus on LGBT protagonists, wanting to honor a community that deserves better representation.
** I WAS GIVEN THIS BOOK FOR MY READING PLEASURE **
Reviewed for Divine Magazine
In the City by the Lake, by Taylor Saracen
POV: 1st person, one character
Themes: Historical, 1920’s, LGBT, Pansy Craze, Mobsters
Content Warning: suicide, organised crime, prohibition, mentions male rape and its legal consequences within the historical period, mentions historical laws such as arresting and institutionalising homosexuals and their treatment within asylums.
Wow. It’s been a long time since I read a book that affected me the way this one did and I’m left a bit speechless. Heartbroken. Puffy-eyed. Teary. And completely saturated by the gut-wrenching and horrifying truth of an era, striding alongside the beautiful, romantic love that was shared on the pages.
In the City by the Lake is a beautiful, stunning, heart-breaking novel about finding yourself, finding love, and surviving the tragedy and hardships that life throw at you. All in the hopes that you come out the other side in tact, a little better off and a little happier than you were before. In a story that spans nearly ten years of a single person’s life, we see how friendships, loves, and family can affect the choices we make. Through Vik, we see how a child’s experiences can shape the man he will eventually become. Cal shows us the optimism and the joy that can be found in even the darkest places. And Rosie is the heartbreaking truth of what a cruel world can do to a delicate soul. In the end, the only family that counts is the one we embrace and the one we choose to matter.
I was immediately drawn in by the author’s writing style, which was a perfect blend of storytelling and biography. It gave us hints and clues to Vik’s life; each chapter a slice of his life like a million puzzle pieces that all have to be fitted together. I was instantly sucked into Vik’s life, resonating with his hermit lifestyle and his wish to keep his head down unless something came along that demanded his attention. The growth of his character was beautiful to watch, as with each page and each chapter, with each year that passed, he became someone new, someone better.
While Vik is part of the Russian mob of the 1920-1930’s, the story is about more than just his part within the organisation. He’s a small fish, making good money, but smart enough to keep his head down and his job under control. He’s a closeted gay man, so afraid of being shunned for his feelings that he can barely even accept his own sexuality until another forces him to confront the issue. His story runs deeper than his criminal activities and drifts into how a young gay man, Jewish and Russian, and quietly enjoying a life out of the limelight, handles the changes to his life when politics and the government take steps to eradicate his kind.
I loved the relationships, the dynamics of friendship, love and family, and how it all played out. Most importantly for me, was Vik and Cal’s relationship, with the strange dynamics of Cal, Vik and Rosie coming in next in line. When he met Cal for the first time, I wasn’t instantly convinced of their relationship, but the more we got to see of Cal on page, the more I could see that Vik’s obsession wasn’t one sided and that these two were perfect for each other. They offered strength and support in a world that didn’t understand them, one minute celebrating freedom and the next oppressing them as a convenient scapegoat for the economic crisis. Yet, through it all, there was the shining hope of their chemistry, their attachment to each other, even before it became a relationship. Add in Rosie’s sweetness and it was hard to deny Cal’s optimism for Vik’s unwitting realism.
When it came to secondary characters, I fell in love with Maks and Rosie right from the start. The more the story progressed, the more I came to love them both. I was instantly attached to Rosie, the same way Cal was; seeing that they needed to be taken care of, protected, and loved. The way that Vik felt uncomfortable around Rosie was eye opening as part of his characterisation, but it was also beautiful to see how time changed the way he looked at the shy but sweet Rosie. On the flip side, I loved that Maks was such a positive force in Vik’s life, offering an outlet, laughter and support, even if Vik couldn’t trust it to mean what he thought it did. I cried for Rosie so many times. And I laughed with Maks as often. I don’t think the book would have been as powerful without these two forces of nature, so quiet and shy and not at all remarkable in the grand scheme of things. Yet, to Vik’s story, they were utterly and completely pivotal and life changing.
Fittingly, while the story isn’t about Vik’s part in the mob, it’s not about the sex, either. Yes, he has sex within the book, which is mostly fade-to-black or briefly mentioned without elaborating on it. But though he looks after the ‘pansy clubs’, some of which offer sex with prostitutes, it’s never about the sex or the superficial interactions made between likeminded men. The story is always delving deeper; into Vik’s psyche, into his troubles, into his self-loathing that was bred by his father since birth. It digs down into the roots of Vik, and who he is and who he could be, while Cal shines a light into his dark world and tries to help him navigate his way to self discovery.
The book covers a wide range of political and economic events within world history, as well as American history, with the realistic viewpoint of how it affects the main character and those around him. Covering instances such as the economic crash, the Great Depression, the Milk Wars, Hitler’s rise to power, the oppression of the Jews in Germany, and the oppression and victimisation of homosexuals in America, the story makes it readily apparent that there are dangers around every corner and it isn’t safe to be anything but white, straight, and cis in this new world. Some dangers are shown in how they affect Vik’s business – such as the closing of the pansy clubs – while others are far closer to home, such as in how Rosie is treated for being a trans person in a world that doesn’t understand.
(Please note: it’s never explicity stated that Rosie is trans, but they went from being Roberto to Rosie and, while addressed as male in the novel, I’ve used gender-neutral terms in my review.)
The storytelling format, and the effect the book had on me, reminds me so strongly of Vinyl Tiger by Dave Di Vito, while being a wholly original and beautiful story all of its own. Like that other novel, this one tugged at my heart in numerous places, but I ended the book spending the last 30% with a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes.
The writing was elegant, yet not overpowering. There was no flowery purple prose, just the subtle, beautiful story of a man struggling to find his way, with littered pieces of American and family history sprinkled in to help us navigate through this world. While it was at once about Vik’s relationship with Cal, and Cal’s relationship with Rosie, it was also about the ever changing world around us and how the smallest things to the biggest world events can affect a single life. And how our decisions – made or not made – can change the course of a life.
I don’t want to say too much about the plot, because the story is beautifully told and you should read it instead of having me rehash it for you. But, I cried, I laughed, I cringed, and I want it in paperback. Now! I’ll be re-reading this book many times in the future, both when I need my heart broken and when I want it to be put back together again.
“Perhaps that’s why America and her dreams never appealed to me: I was more accustomed to nightmares.”
“Becoming a scholar in Cal had made me a student in myself.”