The City Beautiful is a novel about Alter Rosen, a Romanian Jewish immigrant. Jewish boys are disapearing in Chicago, Alter’s roommate Yakov, dies in a suspicious “accident” at the 1893 World’s Fair. Alter gets possessed by Yakov’s dybbuk (ghosts from Jewish folklore). To both appease Yakov’s dybbuk he must solve his murderer, and stop the murderer from killing again. Alter must journey into the underbelly of corruption in Chicago, where he meets an old friend, Frankie, whom he has a complicated history with.
The City Beautiful by Aden Polydoros quickly sparked my interest when I read about it. The reason for this interest? The protagonist is a queer Jew living in Chicago. This description could also very well match me. And as Polydoros stated in his author’s note, the majority of Jewish represention in books is in those about the Holocaust. That’s not to say that these books aren’t important, as Holocaust Rembrance Day approaches, we should be learning about this tragedy. But Holocaust narratives shouldn’t be the only narratives that represent Jewish people. Even less representation exists for queer Jewish characters, as the only other canonically queer and Jewish protagonist that I think of is Elliot Schafer from In Other Lands. I will say however, that The City Beautiful does contain dark themes and trigger warnings can be found on adenpolydoros.com. This was not Polydoros also wrote that his goal was to portray Jewish characters who “fight back” against their oppression. He accomplished this goal in Alter and Frankie, stand up to people who would try to hurt them and their friends.
I enjoyed how unapologetically Jewish Alter is, speaking Yiddish, and wearing tzitzis. Frankie is more assimilated. It is interesting to see his conversations and arguments with Alter, about whether one can be successful as someone who is openly Jewish and if it’s worth sticking to your culture and beliefs. There is even enough Yiddish in the novel to warrant the glossary at the end. I was glad Polydoros didn’t just make the characters vaguely Ashkenazic, instead allowing them their former nationalities. For example, readers get to know that Yakov is Russian, and Frankie is Lithuanian. Frankie’s Lithuanian Jewish identity particularly excited me since it is another identity that I share.
I will say I found The City Beautiful a bit slow, particularly at the beginning. It took a while before Alter even realized that he was possessed by a dybbuk. The novel is 462 pages long, and that just seemed longer than necessary. The plot also zigzagged confusingly a bit, unsure of whether to focus on Alter’s more mundane problems, the murder mystery, or romance. Still, I found it an interesting and enjoyable read which featured some much-needed representation. I would recommend it, and I hope to see more like it in the future.