Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Review: The Transformation of Bartholomew Fortuno by Ellen Bryson

Here is a summary of the book from Ellen Bryson's website:

BARTHOLOMEW FORTUNO,the World’s Thinnest Man, believes that his unusual body is a gift. Hired by none other than P.T. Barnum to work at his spectacular American Museum—a modern marvel of macabre displays, breathtaking theatrical performances, and live performances by Barnum’s cast of freaks and oddities—Fortuno has reached the pinnacle of his career. 

But after a decade of solid performance, he finds his sense of self, and his contentment within the walls ofthe Museum, flagging. When a carriage pulls up outside the Museum in the dead of night, bearing Barnum and a mysterious veiled woman—rumored to be a new performer— Fortuno’s curiosity is piqued. And when Barnum asks Fortuno to follow her and report back on her whereabouts, his world is turned upside-down.

Why is Barnum so obsessed with this woman? Who is she,really? And why has she taken such a hold of the hearts of those around her? Set in the New York of 1865, a time when carriages rattled down cobblestone streets, raucous bordellos near the docks thrived, and the country was mourning the death of President Lincoln, The Transformation of Bartholomew Fortuno is a moving novel about human appetites and longings. With pitch-perfect prose, Ellen Bryson explores what it means to be profoundly unique—and the power of love to transcend even the greatest divisions.

My Review:
This was such a fascinating novel that brought us behind the scenes of a museum that showcased odd specimens and performers that were likely also viewed as sideshows at circuses.  I think that Ellen Bryson did some excellent research for this novel because P.T. Barnum did own such a museum full of eccentric performers, and to also throw into the mix how all were affected by the assassination of President Lincoln just kept me reading more.

Although the story is narrated by Barthaolomew Fortuno, the skinniest man around, we also are introduced into the lives of his fellow co-workers.  We have the opportunity to get to know these individuals with all of their eccentricities and oddities.  We get an inside glimpse of their feelings and what makes them believe that they are special to be able to do what they are doing.  Many of these performers, including the strong man, the fat lady, and Bartholomew, feel that they have been given a special gift that must be shared with the public.

All of the performers find themselves always trying to get into the good graces of Barnum.  Barnum holds the keys to their futures and one wrong move can put them out on the street, or worse yet, back to a circus sideshow.  Many of them feel that they have life pretty good living under Barnum's watchful eye of the museum.  When Barnum approaches Bartholomew to ask a special favor of him, how could he deny his wish knowing that his denial could be his demise?  Bartholomew finds himself venturing out into the public at Barnum's request to fetch a secret package from a chinese retailer.  Bartholomew does this a few times for Barnum and although he doesn't peek at the contents, he is surprised when the retailer gives him an herbal root to cure himself.  Bartholomew becomes quickly insulted as he has never considered his lack of body weight as a sickness, but something quickly changes inside of him as he ingests the herbal root.

Maybe it was all psychological for Bartholomew, or maybe not, but after eating that root he starts to feel different about his life and his appearance.  He starts to reflect on his past and his childhood and questions about whether the museum is the best place for him.  Maybe life on the outside does have more to offer to himself and his friends.

As Bartholomew changes inwardly he starts to feel romantic inclinations towards a friend that he never felt before.  But when a new performer is introduced to the museum his lust for her seems to overpower his mind as he is drawn to her oddity in a strange way.  I will not say much about the new addition to the museum as I don't want to give away an important part of the book, but I will say that this person was my main problem with the book.  She was such an odd individual and as her secret is revealed at the end of the book, it all kind of came together for me.  It still doesn't settle well for me but I feel that it was a sensible ending.

Although there were parts of this story that were disturbing, I found myself thoroughly enjoying Bryson's writing and I can't wait to see what she comes up with next.  With themes of circuses, passion, love, friendship, and revelations this was a very interesting book.  I think it would also be a great selection for a book club, but please be aware that it may be a bit much for a more reserved group.

My Rating:  4/5

Disclosure:  This book was provided to me from the publisher through the Shelf Awareness program in exchange for an honest review.

Check out more great book reviews over at Cym Lowell's Book Review Party Wednesday!


BurtonReview said...

Thanks for the review, how interesting you have made this story sound!

Cherry said...

I came from Cym Lowell's Book Review Party Wednesday (BRPW).

I don't mind oddity, specially if the story telling quality is good enough to make it a good reading. What I do not like is when it does not make sense. The author has lost me then as a reader. Reading from your post, that new addition to the museum sounds to me like he/she is too mysterious that it doesn't make sense...

By the way, where is Cym's BRPW badge?

Cherry Mischievous

Jessica said...

Love your review! This sounds like a book I would like - adding it to my "to read" list.

Unknown said...

I loved this book! I've always had a strange fascination with the "freak show" aspects of olden days circuses and this was really interesting. I really didn't know anything about PT Barnum before his circus days.