So many first novels read like autobiographical fantasies that I am still somewhat surprised when I read one that takes completely the opposite approach, as Ellen Bryson has done in The Transformation of Bartholomew Fortuno. Bryson sets her debut novel in a New York City still reeling from Abraham Lincoln’s assassination – interesting enough a time, in itself – but she takes it all a giant step farther by choosing as her main characters some of the human oddities who worked and lived in P.T. Barnum’s American Museum at the time. Bryson then proceeds to tell a rather sweet love story involving “the world’s thinnest man” and Matina, Barnum’s resident “fat lady.” Things, however, do not remain sweet for long.
Barnum, always on the lookout for new talent he can add to his cast of human curiosities, inadvertently stirs the pot when he brings Iell, a bearded lady, into the company. That she arrives at the museum late at night, only to be quickly spirited away by Barnum, lends Iell an immediate air of mystery. That mystery is compounded when Barnum’s assistant informs the museum residents that, not only are they not to speak to the woman or seek her out, they are also forbidden to attend any of her museum performances.
The Rubber Man, the Giantess, the Strong Man, the Fat Lady and others view the mystery as a challenge to see which of them can be the first to solve it. Bartholomew, though, becomes infatuated with the new performer as soon as he sees her picture on one of the museum’s oversized advertising posters. Thus, begins Barthy’s transformation, from a man proud of his status as an elite human oddity, into a man completely consumed by desire for a woman to whom he has been forbidden even to speak. But by the time the mystery of Iell is resolved, Barthy will have changed in more ways than one.
Ellen Bryson does a remarkable job of penetrating the screen behind which P.T. Barnum’s human curiosities hide themselves from the rest of the world, even to revealing the personal pride the performers take in having reached the top of their profession by meriting inclusion in Barnum’s famous museum. But, long as it is on atmosphere and character development (which, alone, makes the novel worth reading), The Transformation of Bartholomew Fortuno is a bit short on plot. While the mysteries concerning Iell, and Barnum’s fascination with the woman, are worth solving, it does take a long time to get to that point and, before that happens, the reader will perhaps grow weary of the repetitiveness of everyday life in the museum.
Still, this is an unusual first novel, one that will especially appeal to fans of gritty historical fiction. If this is you, you will do well to give The Transformation of Bartholomew Fortuno a chance.
Rated at: 3.0
(Review Copy provided by Publisher)