Title: Circus of Wonders
Author: Elizabeth Macneal
Page Count: 384
Publication Date: 2021
Category/Genre: Fiction, Adult Fiction, Magical Realism, Historical, Romance
Good Reads Rating: ★★★★☆ (3.81)
My Rating: ★★★★☆ (4.0)
1866. In a coastal village in southern England, Nell picks violets for a living. Set apart by her community because of the birthmarks that speckle her skin, Nell’s world is her beloved brother and devotion to the sea.
But when Jasper Jupiter’s Circus of Wonders arrives in the village, Nell is kidnapped. Her father has sold her, promising Jasper Jupiter his very own leopard girl. It is the greatest betrayal of Nell’s life, but as her fame grows, and she finds friendship with the other performers and Jasper’s gentle brother Toby, she begins to wonder if joining the show is the best thing that has ever happened to her.
In London, newspapers describe Nell as the eighth wonder of the world. Figurines are cast in her image, and crowds rush to watch her soar through the air. But who gets to tell Nell’s story? What happens when her fame threatens to eclipse that of the showman who bought her? And as she falls in love with Toby, can he detach himself from his past and the terrible secret that binds him to his brother?
Moving from the pleasure gardens of Victorian London to the battle-scarred plains of the Crimea, Circus of Wonders is an astonishing story about power and ownership, fame, and the threat of invisibility.
Nell has been betrayed by her father, torn from her family and life when she is sold to Jasper Jupiter’s Circus of Wonders. Although her existence is riddled with self-esteem issues, isolation, shame and sadness, Nell’s initial reaction to being ripped away is that of terror and loss. Immediately, my heart latched on to her.
Jasper and his gentler brother, Toby, are bound tightly together by secrets and their past history. By interweaving the brothers’ time in the Crimean War, we learn over and over again that “all of history is fiction” and anything can be distorted to tell a story.
Jasper is blindly ambitious, selfish, and always seeking fame and fortune at any price. When he sees the potential in Nell’s grace and magnetism, he crafts her a new story and transforms her into Queen of the Moon and Stars, the star of his show, eventually grabbing the attention of even the Queen.
Nell becomes close to fellow acts, including a group of women, forming strong friendships and family, developing resilience and a more defined sense of identity. She becomes emboldened and begins to own her own story and write her own history.
But Jasper’s greed and ambitions begin to threaten them all but the ending was incredibly satisfying and I’m not sure that Macneal could have done a better job in tying it all up.
The characters are authentic and flawed. The writing is emotionally charged and lyrical. This is a beautifully written novel with incredible depth and an engaging storyline.
It touches on issues of power, ownership, celebrity, exploitation, differences, empowerment, acceptance, hope, sibling relationships, family loyalty, secrets, love and loss. It explores the position of women, the social norms and attitudes of the day, the society and, inequalities of Victorian England.
It’s a fantastical tale that captivates and dazzles like the circus itself.