This book was an absolute joy to read and exactly my sort of novel. In 1922, Peggy Battenburg is a member of one of the wealthiest families in America. However, alongside money and status comes scrutiny and Peggy doesn’t always behave the way a young lady, of her social standing, should. She bucks against the traditional respectability expected of her and the idea that she should be told how to behave by the male members of the family. This rebellious streak means she doesn’t really fit, whether it be in high or low society. People of her family’s class are scandalised by her and the ordinary people of Coney Island mistrust her because of this rich background. She really can’t win.
Peggy’s family bring her back home for the summer. She’s been working in a bookshop, but now she needs to be back in high society. They hope to secure a prestigious marriage proposal for Peggy’s sister, to a groom who will ensure the financial security of their family going forward. They have someone in mind, but Peggy hates the potential husband and desperately wants to escape the claustrophobic atmosphere. This is where she decides to set out for Dreamland and meets Stefan, an artist working at the amusement park just a short distance from where the family are staying at the Oriental Hotel. Dreamland is a pleasure palace and a real juxtaposition to the hotels where the wealthy elite are staying. Hotel residents might stroll to the amusements for an afternoon’s diversion, but police are stationed along the route so that identification can be checked when walking back towards the hotels. The haves and have-nots are quite separate.
By contrast Peggy becomes immersed in the life of artists, dancers, food vendors and acrobats. She finds that despite their lack of money and status they have a lot of freedom whereas, for all her money, Peggy is kept in a cage, albeit a gilded one. I love the setting of Coney Island and enjoyed Alice Hoffman’s Museum of Extraordinary Things set within a freak show. This book was equally well researched and Bilyeau’s description of period clothing and the sounds and smells of the park really set the scene and helped me disappear from 2020 into this exciting other world. We learn about the manners and behaviour of the time and how it differs between classes. Peggy learns more about her family too, and many secrets are revealed. Added to the excellent characterisation and immersive world created by the author, is the fact that bodies of young girls start turning up on the beach. While this plot line is not the strongest part of the novel it does pose certain questions for Peggy, not least about her own family. How much are the Battenburg’s willing to lie and cover up?
I liked Peggy. She is a thoroughly modern young woman who, despite family riches, has her own job in a bookshop. She is intelligent and inquisitive. I can see why she would want to experience more than the stifling role of ‘rich daughter’ allows. Added to this rebellious nature are simmering tensions within the family and a menacing air of control from the fiancé and his brother. Reading this felt like being thrust into a technicolour world of sun, sea, and scandal. I absolutely loved it.