By Lauren Belfer

Dial. 518 pp. $24.95

Reviewed by Cristina Del Sesto

Shuffling off to Buffalo, N.Y., hardly sounds enticing, but at the turn of the last century it was "the" place to be. Politically and socially au courant, the city claimed two presidents as its own: Millard Fillmore and Grover Cleveland (who was married to a Buffalo girl). It was also the site chosen for the Pan-American Exposition (where President McKinley was shot). There were 60 local millionaires by that time, and nearby Niagara Falls was the subject of our country's first environmental battle as industrialists labored to harness its power.

In City of Light, first-time novelist Lauren Belfer takes us back to the Queen City of the Lakes in 1901. Her narrator, Louisa Barrett, headmistress of the Macaulay School for Girls, is a bizarre cross between Miss Jean Brodie and Jane Eyre; she tells us that she is a rare example of strength and independence, but she is often priggish. Besides her school, she has little in her life save her love for a young girl, Grace Sinclair, whose mother has recently died: "[Grace] filled the doorway like an angel, the brightness of the hall making a halo around her. Blonde hair flowed over her shoulders, highlighted like strands of silk. She wore a costume of scarves and shawls draped over one of her mother's tennis dresses. In a life like mine, there are not many people to love."

Grace's father, Tom, is director of the hydroelectric power project at Niagara Falls. He dreams of giving free electricity to the masses. Sinclair is a fitting surname (sounds like saint) for a man who turns water into light. But some think Tom is a sinner; there are mysterious murders, rumors of bribery. Suspicion surrounds the electric plant at Niagara, and Miss Barrett finds herself being sucked into the whirlpool of controversy. The Falls themselves are often used as the backdrop and metaphor for Buffalo's as well as Miss Barrett's angst: "That roar enveloped me, and each wind gust soaked my face. The Iroquois word niagara meant `the thunder of the waters,' and I was trapped within that thunder."

This city is not only a city of light but a city of secrets -- and Miss Barrett has her own to keep. But what secrets are ever sacred? Blending history with fiction, Belfer reveals Buffalo's one by one. "Ma, Ma, where's my Pa?" was the Republican taunt aimed at Cleveland during his 1884 presidential campaign. Cleveland, Belfer reports, had countless affairs, and one in Buffalo resulted in an illegitimate child. He committed the mother to an insane asylum and had the child put up for adoption. The scandal didn't prevent him from getting elected. "Goin' to the White House! Ha, Ha, Ha," was the Democrats' retort to the taunt.

The idea of combining politicians, a hydroelectric power plant, environmentalists, civil rights activists, Buffalo society and one headmistress in 1901 is ambitious, original and timely, with the millennium imminently before us and the irksome scandal of yet another philandering president just behind. But for all of Belfer's enormous creative energy in research and plot development, there is little to adore about the writing in this 500-plus-page book. Not one sentence is memorable; there's not an adjective or metaphor to relish.

Still, City of Light is a complicated and imaginative story with many daring subplots and colorful secondary characters, including the butterfly-collecting asphalt baron J.J. Albright (his favorite is the Cloudless Sulpher variety), the charitable Miss Maria Love, and Billy O'Flarity, the Niagara guide. These are just a few of the people the headmistress meets in the most unusual situations as Belfer takes on topics ranging from racial lynching to teen pregnancy to poverty. Whoever coined the phrase "times were simpler then" was wrong. They weren't. Not, at least, in Belfer's Buffalo.

Cristina Del Sesto, a former reporter for The Washington Post, has co-authored a book on international terrorism.