The Transformation of Bartholomew Fortuno by Ellen Bryson

Bartholomew Fortuno, the World's Thinnest Man, believes that his unusual body is a gift. Hired by none other than P. T. Barnum to work at his spectacular American Museum—a modern marvel of macabre displays, breathtaking theatrical performances, and live shows by Barnum's cast of freaks and oddities—Fortuno has reached the pinnacle of his career. But after a decade of constant work, he finds his sense of self, and his contentment within the walls of the museum, flagging. When a carriage pulls up outside the museum in the dead of night, bearing Barnum and a mysterious veiled woman—rumored to be a new performer—Fortuno's curiosity is piqued. And when Barnum asks Fortuno to follow her and report back on her whereabouts, his world is turned upside down. Why is Barnum so obsessed with this woman? Who is she, really? And why has she taken such a hold on the hearts of those around her?

I judged this book by its cover and the similar setting of Water For Elephants - a book I completely adore. It definitely fell short of my lofty expectations. Maybe without the comparison of another circus-themed book I would have enjoyed it more.... but probably not.
I'll tell you what I did like about the book. I loved the setting- late 1800's, right at the time of Lincoln's assassination and the end of the Civil War, New York City, in Barnum's museum of oddities and freaks. Love it. So much potential in the setting alone! I love the idea behind the characters. A cast of freaks (literally) filled with a rubber-man (Ricardo), a strong man (Alley), a fat lady (Matina), a giantess (Emma) and our main man, the world's thinnest - Barthy, as his friends call him, and of course, the formidable P. T. Barnum. Now, I have no idea what the real Barnum was like, but I am guessing the author's portrayal isn't too far off. She sets him up as a man of power, ruled over by his slightly scary wife. He loves money and oddities and is always running off to find the next big/shocking act. The narrator eludes to some, let's say, inappropriate interactions with some of the more young and alluring acts. He is a bit full of himself and fancies himself as a god of his kingdom. I will get back to what else I liked after I explain a little more about the plot.
Our main character, Bartholomew, is dear friends with Matina. They have a relationship of sorts and a deep-seeded friendship. Barthy is quite content in the beginning of the novel and feels that he enlightens others by his "gift" as he calls it. Then he gets sucked into the saga surrounding this new act that arrives. Her name is Iell. (pronounced I-L - stupid name if you ask me). Now, Barthy becomes smitten and then completely obsessed with this woman, which becomes the central reasons for all of the actions that move the story forward. I am not quite sure, and neither is he, why he is so drawn to her. I cannot figure out her character until the very end of the book and was left guessing most of the time if she was friend or foe. (I will tell you- I so did not see the twist in her story coming.)  He's like a Jacob pining for Bella - the way the wolf-pack sees it. It's just sick and sad, and you want him to get over it. Barthy is a tid bit wishy-washy for me at times. One minute he is happy where he's at, the next he wants to save Iell from this life as a freak and wisk her away somewhere. Then he thinks he wants to be with Matina, but no he loves Iell. Ugh. He also ends up alienating all of the people closest to him over this Iell. Barthy  has a questionable and dark childhood, which you get glimpses into throughout the story. He was sent off to the circus in his teens, by his uncle who was left to care for him after his mother was institutionalized and his father died. You get to see, from a very young Barthy, flashbacks to traumatic times in his childhood which lead to exactly how his gift manifested. It is highly irritating though, because in the midst of every flashback, he gets disturbed by someone, just before he recalls something important. I am not kidding- this happens at least four times. I wish she could have come up with a more interesting way of breaking up the flashbacks, but alas, I didn't write the book. I felt like this book did not live up to its potential at all.
The other thing that I did like from it has to do with the cover art. The bird escaping from its cage. One of Barthy's duties at the museum is to tend the exotic birds, a task which is very soothing to him. He does begin to feel as if he were a caged bird, like the very ones he cares for. I liked the message in this book that you can escape, so to speak, from your circumstances and change your life-path. "You have a choice" is a resounding message throughout the story. It did seem to have a bittersweet ending for Bartholowmew though.
And now... for the unveiling of my new rating system....
Drumroll please....

I give The Transformation of Bartholomew Fortuno
2 out of 5 BookWorms. - It was just OK, but not great.


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