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Orphans of the Carnival

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Member Reviews

I found reading this novel by Carol Birch led me to new places in a new era and it was written with such ease. Right from the beginning the author set such a colorful and creative stage for her readers. I was suddenly thrust into a Moulin Rouge, American Horror Story: Freak Show (without the horror aspect), and Big Fish sort of world.  It was like witnessing a big budget Hollywood film within a book.

I fully appreciated the complexity of some of the characters; making me feel for them even more. I often found myself heartbroken for the characters. Feeling shunned when they were shunned. It definitely pulled at the heart strings more learning this was based on a real woman.

Some of the reading wasn’t always with ease. I am the type of reader that I believe all of the scenes need to serve a purpose. Whether, it is for the plot or adding more structure to the character I want the scene to have some reasoning, and unfortunately there were quite a few cases in this novel where that wasn’t the case. Some of the scenes just didn’t seem to fit and seemed pointless.

Now, this is where it gets strange. This just wasn’t my cup tea. I know it may seem otherwise. My praise reflects that it is a good book– I refuse to solely judge a book on its quality on whether or not I like the story. Technically it is a good book. Just not the book I am often looking for.

Overall, even though I have mixed feelings about Orphans of the Carnival I can see this being an enjoyable book for a reader who likes to be transported every time they open a book.
My review was posted on my blog on Aug. 8th.
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I didn’t know, when I first requested to read Orphans of the Carnival  on Netgalley, that it was the fictionalized version of the life of Julia Pastrana, an accomplished singer, musician and dancer, who by the cruel twist of fate, was dubbed the “missing link” between ape and man. Some people, in fact, refused to believe that she was human at all. She had a genetic condition which caused her entire body and face to be covered with straight, black hair. She also had gingival hyperplasia, which thickened her lips and gums, giving the impression that they were jutting out.
Born in Mexico, she eventually came to the US, and thereafter, she toured and performed with carnivals and sideshows around the world  in the 19th century. She eventually married her manager Theodore Lent. Unfortunately, she died in childbirth, after which Lent preserved, stuffed and displayed her and their child’s dead bodies.
In Carol Birch’s retelling of this unique life history, Julia’s life story is interspersed with glimpses from the life of Rose, a highly eccentric woman, who collects all sorts of odds and ends. She stores every one of her fallen eyelashes, for instance. How Julia’s life and Rose’s intersect becomes heart-achingly clear only at the very end.
To Birch’s credit, she brings both women to life beautifully. However, it is her Julia who shines. Her Julia can retort, when someone wonders if she is an ape, that she cannot be one because,”I speak French and English and Spanish. An ape doesn’t speak French and English and Spanish.”
And yet there are heartbreaking moments where she wonders, “Am I actually human? And if I’m not, what does it mean? Ape woman, bear woman,human.Thing. Still me, still the Julia creature.”
It is infuriating to the reader when one reads about people, especially the men around her who insist that she doesn’t know what she wants, or that she shouldn’t go out alone. And because Birch gets us to empathize with Julia, and gets us to see her for the amazing person she is, it is doubly infuriating when Julia herself keeps mentioning that she doesn’t understand or doesn’t want to manage money and contracts. It is other carnival performers, Myrtle and Delia, who exhort her to develop the smarts she needs with reference to her finances, to ask for and get a proper contract.
The novel thus becomes more than just a retelling of her life. It becomes a commentary on our ableist expectations. It is a critique of a society that judges on appearance and not accomplishment.
A lot of the vocabulary that people use around Julia is extremely ableist–they are constantly surprised that she can do things like talk and sing and dance. I would therefore put in a content warning for ableist language here. Also, there is a point where Julia is threatened physically, and this scene with it’s subtle menace and violence was quite disturbing.
Where the novel does suffer a bit, is the pacing. It lags quite a bit and gets repetitive every now and then. However, it never got so bad that I had to give up on the book altogether.
In the end, it is Julia who holds this book together. Read this for her, and for Birch’s beautiful writing.
FTC disclaimer: I received an ARC of this book from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for this honest review.
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Loved this book
Didn't want it to end
Highly recommended
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A Decent enough read that lacked the punch of Jamrach's Menagerie for me.  It lacked a bit of the wonder and magic that the previous book had.  Here the characters are a little more drawn to stand out rather than engage. I did not relate that much to them as they seemed a bit over the top in some ways.  Their emotions and ambitions just did not connect as I wanted. 

The atmosphere and setting is wonderfully drawn though.   Birch does a fantastic job of capturing a time and presenting it in a setting that does immerse and engage.  But this might be a small point in how the book suffers as well.  The stage is just a bit too brightly lit for the players not to shine.  And this case, I just did not find it so.
I do however still find Birch a great writer overall and in no way was I unhappy I read this book.  I just felt the gap in overall quality was a bit of a disappointment in specific and in general, simply as a read, lacked a wow factor I think another star deserves
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What a captivating novel! Seeing the world from the perspective of a carnival "freak" is a twist, especially when the heroine captivates the 19th century world with her uniqueness. 

Julia Pastrana was billed as the hairiest woman, the ugliest human and more. This is the fictionalized accounting of a real person, a "hybrid" who rose to fame in the mid-1800s. Audiences across the world craved to see her dance and sing. On stage, she' was cheered. In life, she was shunned. Through it all, the thing she wanted most - to be loved and accepted - remained just beyond her grasp.

Carol Birch has done a fine job re-creating a past era and its social standards. The end result is a fascinating piece of historic fiction. Her focus is a look at humanity not as a curiosity, but what it means to be human.
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Published by Doubleday on November 8, 2016

Julia Pastrana has traveled by train from Mexico to New Orleans at the invitation of Matthew Rates, who met Julia when she was singing and playing her guitar at a wedding. Rates is introduced to Julia as being in the “entertainment business.” Actually, he manages a traveling freak show. Julia is expected to be a headliner because of her resemblance to a cuddly ape. Advertised as a “hybrid bear woman,” Julia joins a pinhead, a girl with no limbs, a rubber-skin man, and an albino black. It is 1854 and nobody has given much thought to the offensive nature of freak shows.

Julia feels she has been cursed, punished for the sins of the mother who abandoned her. Sometimes she wonders if she’s really a human. But freak is the last word that should be used to describe Julia. She is bright and funny and talented, possessed of a kind heart and a will to see the world. Despite her courage, Julia doesn’t dare venture out alone, for fear that people of less intelligence will attack her because attacking anyone different is what stupid people do.

Julia goes through another manager before she signs a contract with Theo Lent, who takes her to Europe. Lent is jealous and insecure, everything that Julia is not. Yet even in Europe, people find Julia unnerving. She scares children. Editorials condemn her for being seen in public.

Julia, while sometimes saddened, does not succumb to self-pity. She works hard and, like anyone else, she wants to be appreciated. Sometimes she is revered and other times she is condemned. The public tends to like her (their appetite for freaks is insatiable) but the guardians of decency scorn her. The novel demonstrates how little things change -- even today, the guardians of decency scorn everyone who doesn’t look, speak, and think just like they do.

Carol Birch based Orphans of the Carnival on a true story and presumably stuck closely to events that actually occurred in Julia’s life. The novel eventually gives Julia something like a love story involving Theo, whose personality is a complex blend of selfishness and self-hatred and obsessive love. In the end, he’s a bit creepy, while Julia is saintly.

Infrequent but semi-regular interludes reveal the story of Rose, a hoarder who has collected all the eyelashes that ever fell from her eyes. Rose lives in the present with Adam and their love story, like Julia’s, is unconventional. The brief interludes lead to a longer conclusion that tie the stories together. Adding the modern story is an interesting plot device, but I’m not sure its inclusion in the novel accomplishes its intended purpose.

The characters in Orphans of the Carnival are fully realized and that’s the novel’s strength. Its weakness is that the story hews closely to the facts of Julia’s life, which leaves little room for imaginative plotting. Birch let her imagination soar in Jamrach’s Menagerie, but here she reins it in a bit too much. Still, she brings the characters to life with emotional honesty that makes Orphans of the Carnival an easy novel to admire.

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The idea for "Orphans of the Carnival" is genius, and a lot of the writing is done well with beautiful phrases and insights, but overall I did not like the book.  The main problem with the book is the modern-day Rose portion, which just takes away from Julia's story.  In fact, I cannot stand the Rose portion of the story, and the doll island portion is too weird -- it seems as if all this was added to either lengthen the book and/or provide some kind of clever 'twist," but it just did not work.  The ending was awful.  I would have loved to read more about Julia.  If the book needed to be longer, it would have been better to spend more time developing the characters in Julia's story.  Maria was actually the best-developed character, and she was not even the main focus.

I will not post this review on my website, The Marvelous Site, since I only post positive reviews.  If Ms. Birch does more background research for her next book, I am willing to give it a try.
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