Ellen Bryson – The Transformation of Bartholomew Fortuno
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.
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)
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.**