Coney Island, 1911. Peggy Battenberg, along with thousands of other revellers, is planning on spending summer at America’s playground. But Peggy, heiress to a massive fortune, is unlike the other inhabitants of Coney Island that summer; her family is in the middle of a crisis and a summer spent among the hedonism of Coney Island at the behest of her sister’s soon-to-be-fiancé with her controlling family is not how Peggy would choose to spend her time.
At first Peggy thinks her biggest challenge will be putting up with her standoffish mother and Henry, the mega rich playboy with whom she shares an unsavoury past. But when local women begin turning up dead, she soon realises there’s something darker at work here, and she starts to suspect her own family might have a hand in the scandal…
Bilyeau weaves a complex and dark web of deceit and betrayal against the delightfully bawdy background of Coney Island. Readers who love being whisked away to a different time period and immersed completely in the sights, sounds and even smells of a new atmosphere will be delighted with this historical mystery. You can practically smell the fried onions, hotdogs and popcorn and see the lights of the big wheel!
There’s plenty of historical context, as Bilyeau addresses the inequality between social classes at the time, as well as highlights the plight of eastern European immigrants, but she avoids it coming off as a lecture with a good dose of scandal and thrills to balance it out.
The cast of characters on the whole are quite despicable, but in a good way because you love to hate them. Peggy herself is a fantastic character, ahead of her time and shunning her family in her desire to hold down a regular job and be an independent woman, and I really enjoyed seeing her sister Lydia develop as the book went on. Fans of forbidden romance will also be delighted with the relationship Peggy strikes up with humble artist Stefan, a Serbian immigrant her parents definitely disapprove of. Amid the secret romance, Bilyeau explores the dark side of being an immigrant in American in 1911, as Stefan experiences brutal treatment at the hands of the police.
Overall the writing style is easy to read and descriptive, but there is an overbearing tendency from the author to reiterate something once it’s happened. As a reader, I don’t really like it when things are over-explained to me, as it makes me feel like the author doesn’t trust us to figure it out on our own.
Apart from that, Dreamland is a compelling read for fans of historical mysteries set in 20th century America, and one to be read on a weekend with a cup of tea and maybe some popcorn!