Sara Gruen drew me in to her story of Great Depression-era circus life. Meticulously researched and augmented with real photographs, this historical fiction novel is captivating and engrossing.
The framing of the story through the eyes of a reminiscing geriatric provides lots of opportunities for additional reflection and contemplation on changes in our world, although few are seized. His interactions with other patients and nurses are an interesting addition but offer little payoff.
Early on we meet roustabouts, carnival barkers, sideshow freaks, dwarves, and animals, and we learn about the pace of life on a traveling circus with clear class divides. The “backstage” reality is gritty and tiring and hard-charging, and fascinating to behold. In the back third the pace of the story greatly accelerates and the romantic angle takes center stage, leading to a too-neat conclusion with little time to reflect on the human cost.
I can forgive the frequent telling-not-showing (with the requisite dumb as a brick narrator needed everything to be explained), I can overlook the romantic obsession, and I can accept the very limited development of secondary characters, but the present-day ride into the sunset ending is too ridiculous to bear. I choose to believe that the modern-day denouement is just a crazed vision in old Jacob’s head, and somehow that makes this book work better for me.