New York, 1895. It's late on a warm city night when Sylvan Threadgill, a young night soiler who cleans out the privies behind the tenement houses, pulls a terrible secret out from the filthy hollows: an abandoned newborn baby. An orphan himself, Sylvan was raised by a kindly Italian family and can't bring himself to leave the baby in the slop. He tucks her into his chest, resolving to find out where she belongs. Odile Church is the girl-on-the-wheel, a second-fiddle act in a show that has long since lost its magic. Odile and her sister Belle were raised in the curtained halls of their mother's spectacular Coney Island sideshow: The Church of Marvels. Belle was always the star - the sword swallower - light, nimble, a true human marvel. But now the sideshow has burnt to the ground, their mother dead in the ashes, and Belle has escaped to the city. Alphie wakes up groggy and confused in Blackwell's Lunatic Asylum. The last thing she remembers is a dark stain on the floor, her mother-in-law screaming. She had once walked the streets as an escort and a penny-Rembrandt, cleaning up men after their drunken brawls. Now she is married, a lady in a reputable home. She is sure that her imprisonment is a ruse by her husband's vile mother. But then a young woman is committed alongside her, and when she coughs up a pair of scissors from the depths of her agile throat, Alhie knows she harbors a dangerous secret that will alter the course of both of their lives... On a single night, these strangers' lives will become irrevocably entwined, as secrets come to light and outsiders struggle for acceptance. From the Coney Island seashore to the tenement-studded streets of the Lower East Side, a spectacular sideshow to a desolate asylum, Leslie Parry makes turn-of-the-century New York feel alive, vivid and magical in this luminous debut.
I am definitely in the minority on this, but I really did not enjoy reading this book. And I wanted to like it so much!! *sobs* But no matter how hard I tried, I just couldn't bring myself to be taken from this book. There were just too many things that didn't work for me. For starters, I felt like there were too many POVs. I don't normally mind multiple narrators too much, but here it just felt like the narration was too fragmented and disconnected. The POV alternated too much, too rapidly, and I struggled to keep up. A few times, I actually found myself having to go back and re-read a few parts, simply because I had become too confused by what was happening to actually understand what was going on. I also had real problems with the writing. While it wasn't by any means bad, it just didn't draw me in, and I had difficulty following where it was leading me. And it didn't help that I had to keep looking words up, because there were just SO MANY that I had never heard before, and I had absolutely no clue as to what they meant.
The story was definitely very original, even though I found it hard to follow the various characters. However, I felt that there was an awful lot of telling rather than showing, which really slowed the whole thing down terribly. We actually get to see very little happening in front of us, and most events are shared by the characters after they have happened, as they reflect upon them in the present. And speaking of the characters, I had a very hard time connecting with them, and found them fairly lacking in development. Now, this may just be me, but I felt like they didn't really change that much throughout the book, and then a couple of them just turned their lives around completely at the end of the book... And I just couldn't buy it, because to me it seemed too sudden and radical to be real.
But don't despair just yet! Because there were some positives, too. I LOVED how diverse the characters were! The author managed to include a wide range of diversity in this book, and I think she did a pretty good job of showing the difficulties "different" people would face living in the 1800s, even in a big, modern city like New York. And the historical representation of the city was also very good. Now, I'm no expert, so I actually have no idea if it was accurate at all, but it felt real and that's good enough for me.
I'm very disappointed that I didn't like this book more, because I really thought I would. But I have seen so many other reviewers absolutely adoring it, so don't let me put you off from reading this if you're even mildly interested in it, since it's probably just me. Unfortunately, we just didn't click: I couldn't get into it and I struggled to connect with the characters. I might give it another try in the future to see if my thoughts change at all, but for now it just wasn't a good match.