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Ellen Bryson – The Transformation of Bartholomew Fortuno

June 23, 2010

69. The Transformation of Bartholomew Fortuno by Ellen Bryson (2010)

Length: 388 pages
Genre: Historical Fiction

Started: 14 June 2010
Finished: 20 June 2010

Where did it come from? From the publishers.
Why do I have it? The blurb for it caught my eye.
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 24 March 2010.

The World’s Thinnest Man
must find somewhere to put his
heart, lest it gets lost.

Summary: Before P. T. Barnum started his famous traveling circus, in 1865 he ran the American Museum in New York City, which was was part natural history museum, part theater, and part sideshow. Bartholomew Fortuno works as a Living Curiosity – the Living Skeleton, due to his extreme thinness – in the museum, a post he feels lucky to have: instead of being trapped with a traveling carnival, he’s able to live in comfort and display his unique gifts for the edification as well as the entertainment of the crowds that pour in. When Barnum brings in a mysterious new act – Iell Adams, a bearded lady – Bartholomew becomes intoxicated by her charms, and cannot resist becoming entangled in a complicated web of secrets, schemes, and deceit.

Review: The Transformation of Bartholomew Fortuno had a lot going for it, and only one real strike against it… but in the end, that strike won out for me. First the good things: Ellen Bryson is a very talented writer, both on the macro and the micro scale. She’s excellent at description and setting; her depiction of the Museum, its inhabitants, and Gilded Age New York City was astonishingly vivid, enough so that when I looked at the historical photos of the Museum once I’d finished, I recognized them easily. She’s also able to turn a perfect phrase, and to construct a wonderful metaphor without overworking it. Her choice of subject is an inspired one; the oddities and extremes to which the human body can go are fascinating both in a visceral way and because they force us to examine and redefine our conception of what it means to be human.

However, the book’s one flaw is a pretty largeish one: by the end of the book, I could not stand its narrator. Bartholomew is puffed up on his own self-importance, completely oblivious to both the feelings and thoughts of everyone around him, and frequently pretty nasty to other people as he moves about his completely egocentric universe, and even the “transformation” that he undergoes by the end of the book doesn’t entirely change this. In this, The Transformation of Bartholomew Fortuno and Geek Love are quite similar: apart from the surface similarity about being about sideshow freaks, they also both feature casts in which I didn’t really like any of the characters. However, in Geek Love, while I didn’t like any of the characters, I was at least fascinated by their story, but in Bartholomew Fortuno, I figured out most of the character’s secrets well before they were revealed, and Bartholomew’s personal journey just wasn’t compelling enough to overcome my dislike of the character. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: I wasn’t crazy about this book, mainly due to its main character, but Bryson’s talented enough that I will eagerly read her next novel, in hopes of a story with which I can find more connection. However, if the setting or story sound intriguing at all, give it a try: you might find Fortuno more tolerable than I did.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Links:A group photo of the Living Curiosities from P.T. Barnum’s museum
Isaac W. Sprague, the inspiration for Bartholomew Fortuno (lots of other interesting articles at that site, too)

Other Reviews: Life and Times of a “New” New Yorker, Thoughts of Joy
Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: Light from April’s full moon swept over the Museum’s façade and down the building’s marble veneer.


“Man needs a bit of mystery to remind him that the world still holds miraculous things. Unclassifiable wonders. And if scientists simply shove us somewhere in the grander scheme of things, the magic disappears.” – p. 59

“I do not believe we educate our audiences. I believe we frighten them, and in doing so, make them feel better about the dullness of their own lives. We don’t open their eyes, Mr. Fortuno, we give them permission to keep them shut.” – p. 94

“The birds, set free, swooped about in fifty-foot drops, careening over our heads and then dashing up again, as if they were trying to make sense of a world without limits. I leaped to my feet with the rest of the audience, bedazzled by the spectacle, hope and fear rising in me in equal measure. Many of the birds settled on balconies or seatbacks for a moment or two before taking off into the air again, and my heart soared with them. But an unlucky few seemed to lose their way, and, rather than fly with their brethren, they swooped too high or too low and ended up smashing themselves against the walls, discovering the hard way exactly what freedom meant.” – p. 306

Vocab: (see the whole list)

  • p. 57: “The dashing cape had been replaced by an elegant emerald Zouave jacket worn over a dress of dark blue silk.” – one of a former body of infantry in the french army, composed originally of Algerians, distinguished for their dash, hardiness, and picturesque Oriental uniform.
  • p. 68: “After a quick wash, I rooted through my étagère, struggling over what to wear.” – a stand with a series of open shelves for small objects, bric-a-brac, etc.
  • p. 101: “James McFarland, (d. 1858) the equilibrist who performed a free-wire ascension act outside Levi North’s circus tent and died of a stab wound to the jugular in a fight over his wife.” – a performer who is skilled at balancing in unusual positions and hazardous movements, as a tightrope walker in a circus.
  • p. 169: “As I waited, I peeled off the fake mustache and wig, placing them on the counter next to a bouquet of gold and silver flowers. Next to it sat a sand bowl full of burning joss sticks.” – Chinese incense.

**All quotes are from an Advance Reader’s Copy and may not reflect the final published text.**

22 Comments leave one →
  1. June 23, 2010 6:33 am

    Great review! For whatever reason, I think circus books are hard to pull off – anyway I have only ever read one I liked, and it’s by Noel Streatfeild. I love the idea of circus books, but in practice they nearly always let me down.

    • June 23, 2010 12:04 pm

      Jenny – I think this, Geek Love, and Water for Elephants are the only three circus-esque books I’ve read, and whatever my reaction to the rest of the books, I’ve always found the circus elements fascinating… maybe because it’s such a different way of life, and one that I think is disappearing nowadays?

  2. June 23, 2010 7:53 am

    I have read some books that I think hating the main character is part of the story, but this doesn’t sound like one of those. Sorry it didn’t work for you.

    • June 23, 2010 12:05 pm

      bermudaonion – I think that disliking the main character is probably part of the point here – he’s so awful in some of the early/middle parts! – but that the author was intending for his transformation/redemption to be more compelling than it was for me.

  3. Melody permalink
    June 23, 2010 8:26 am

    Hmmm. Liking or disliking a character is never a criteria I use in evaluating a novel. The world would be a shallow place if writers only created characters that everyone liked.

    • June 23, 2010 12:07 pm

      Melody – Really? Never? I agree that it would be boring if I always liked every character, but especially in first-person narrated books, I need to be able to find some sympathy/common ground with the protagonist in order to really get involved in the story.

  4. June 23, 2010 9:58 am

    I just got my hands on a copy of this- thanks for the heads up about the unlikeable protagonist!

    • June 23, 2010 12:08 pm

      Omni – You’ll have to let me know how you react to Bartholomew… for me, he actually started out okay, and the realization that he was kind of a pompous jerk only snuck up on me gradually. :)

  5. June 23, 2010 11:16 am

    Oh boy, I just got this through Library Thing and I haven’t started it yet. The comparison to Water for Elephants is what got me as I loved loved loved that book. Sorry the book didn’t work for you, but I’m still hoping it does for me!

    • June 23, 2010 1:03 pm

      Trisha – It’s been a looong time since I read Water for Elephants, but I’ll be interested to see how you think they compare – they’re on two very different aspects of circus life, and I wouldn’t have thought to link them together before you mentioned it.

  6. June 23, 2010 11:27 am

    I’ve got this book, but haven’t tackled it yet. I wasn’t sure I’d even like the subject matter, so I’m glad you reviewed it…..even if the narrator kills it for me, I think it’ll be worth a shot.

    • June 23, 2010 1:05 pm

      Michele – Like I said, I really liked just about every other aspect of the book besides the narrator, so it’s definitely worth giving it a try. I hope you enjoy it!

  7. June 23, 2010 12:12 pm

    I’ve seen movies and even TV shows with sideshow circus attractions but the only book I’ve ever read that had them in it was Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury. Ugh! I hate it when a perfectly good book is ruined by a main character :(

    • June 23, 2010 1:06 pm

      Ladytink – I forgot about Something Wicked This Way Comes! I know I’ve read it – probably in my junior-high Ray Bradbury phase – but I don’t remember much about it… sounds like it’s time for a re-read!

  8. June 23, 2010 2:16 pm

    i also have this book to read on my shelf. i have heard similar complaints from others, but am trying to stay optimistic, hoping that the protagonist works out for me. *fingers crossed*

  9. June 23, 2010 7:02 pm

    Oh, that’s disappointing! I think the premise sounds wonderful, but I have trouble with unlikeable protagonists. I can take them if they’re interesting enough that their unlikeability becomes a minor concern, but it doesn’t sound like that’s the case here.

    • June 28, 2010 9:09 am

      Memory – I don’t know, in the grand scheme of things, Bartholomew was a very interesting character, in an interesting situation, so that might at least temper if not win out over the obnoxiousness.

  10. June 24, 2010 7:24 am

    I think I would like to read this; I read an interesting book abt Gen Tom Thumb and how he came to be in PT Barnum’s circus and what I missed from that is the NYC stuff – I got only a glimpse. I sure wish that museum hadn’t burned down – how cool it would be to see all that crazy stuff!

    • June 28, 2010 9:14 am

      Care – Oh, the museum would have been fascinating! One of the neatest places I’ve ever been was the Museum of Natural History in Paris, which is still set up (at least in parts) like a Victorian cabinet museum, still has some display cards for specimens that were written by Lamarck, and has a section dedicated to abnormal human skeletons – it’s very much the model for how I pictured Barnum’s museum as I read.

  11. July 5, 2010 3:24 pm

    Oh lovely review! I totally enjoyed that book but understand that Fortuno wasn’t so likeable, but that was ok with me because I became totally involved in why he became like he was. So his flashbacks were so interesting and, well, I just absorbed the book.


  1. Review: The Transformation of Bartholomew Fortuno « The Literary Omnivore

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