I’ve had a lifelong fascination with the circus, and judging by recent bestsellers like "Water for Elephants" by Sara Gruen and "The Night Circus" by Erin Morgenstern, I am not alone. When I go the circus with my family, my husband and two boys are filled with joy, smiles lighting up their faces through the whole show, while my experience is more mixed. Though I do enjoy some of the animal acts, and I am in awe of the contortionists and acrobats, my mind always wanders to questions about goings on behind the scene. What is it like to live life on the road? Is there drama between the performers and the crew? Are the animals well cared for and treated with kindness?
"The Life She Was Given" by Ellen Marie Wiseman explores these questions and so much more. The novel alternates between the stories of Lilly Blackwood and her younger sister, Julia Blackwood. In 1931, Lilly is nine years old and lives her life locked away in the attic of her parents’ home, with only her beloved cat for company. Because she is albino, her parents have kept her a secret since her birth. Late one night, Lilly’s mother takes her out of the house under the cover of darkness and sells her to the Barlow Brothers’ circus. Initially Lilly is terrified by this foreign world, but as the years pass, the other members of the circus develop into a family much warmer and more supportive than her family of origin. Glory, the tattooed woman, becomes a surrogate mother and Cole, the elephant handler, a trusted friend. The elephants also become members of her family as Lilly begins performing with the them, leaving her days of being a sideshow freak behind her.
Meanwhile, in 1956, Julia Blackwood is 18 and has been estranged from her cold, uncaring mother since her father’s sudden death. When her mother dies, Julia inherits her parents’ horse farm and estate. When she first returns to her childhood home, she finds it hard to imagine living in the country by herself, but as the days pass, she finds solace and comfort in caring for the horses. Spending time exploring her parents’ estate, she finds old papers, photographs and secret corners of the house. The unexpected things she discovers make her question who she is and where she really comes from.
Wiseman does an impeccable job with her research about the circus, making every moment feel authentic and believable, the details and descriptions so well done that I could almost smell the popcorn, sweat, and elephant dung. The alternating perspectives and the intriguing ways the two stories intersect makes the novel move quickly to its satisfying conclusion. Stories about the circus will always pique my interest, and "The Life She Was Given" does not disappoint. Next up, "The Greatest Showman," a musical biopic about Barnum starring Hugh Jackman, coming out from 20th Century Fox on Christmas Day. My family had the incredible honor of spending a day on the movie set a few months ago, and this film is definitely not one to miss.
Heather Frimmer is a radiologist by day and an avid reader and writer at all other times. Visit her at heatherfrimmer.com.