Bookworm: ‘Circus of Wonders’ – You’ll want what it’s got

You might heal from divorce just fine without ‘Heartbreak,’ or you might find its support heavenly

Terri Schlichenmeyer
“Circus of Wonders: A Novel” author Elizabeth Macneal.

“Circus of Wonders: A Novel”

  • By Elizabeth Macneal
  • c. 2022, Emily Bestler Books, Atria
  • $27.99, 368 pages

You want what he got. It’s only fair, right? Things should be equal, and you both know it. Unilateralism, tit for tat, totally equitability, and no favoritism, that’ll all keep the Green-Eyed Monster at bay. Jealousy is no fun but you want what he got, and in the new novel “Circus of Wonders” by Elizabeth Macneal, you’ll have it – or else.

“Circus of Wonders: A Novel” by Elizabeth Macneal.

Jasper Brown always got his deepest desires. Whether it was a microscope when he was a boy, war as a young man, a new name, women, monsters, a Circus of Wonders, or his brother’s complete fealty, it was his for the asking. And that included the woman Toby had seen in the dirty little coastal village. The woman that, with the proper costume and a name to match the celestial birthmarks on her body, would get Jasper the invitation to London, and a performance for the Queen.

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The first time Toby saw her, she had dived from a cliff into the ocean and he thought she was dead. He’d never seen a creature more captivating than the woman with speckles all up and down her body and her face; she confused him and he knew he wouldn’t speak of her to Jasper. If Toby dared tell his brother about the girl, the magic of her would disappear.

She knew what the villagers thought about her. Even her own father said Nell was a monster, that it was her fault the sea had risen and ruined the crop of flowers a season or two ago. They all thought it, though she might consider some of the townspeople as friends and she had her beloved brother to lean on.

She wondered what he’d said when he learned that their father had sold Nell to the showman named Jasper. And why didn’t he look for Nell, locked away in a carriage smelling of manure and sweat? Could she ever find her way back home?

Would she even want to, after she’d learned to love the art of the performance?

Don’t expect a lot of abracadabra inside “Circus of Wonders.” It’s not there, not in plot nor setting and it’s missing in each tormented character. Instead, there’s an irresistible authenticity in this book, a bit of circus history, romance, constant damp, and a dark, troubled soul. Come to this novel for that and stay.

Author Elizabeth Macneal keeps you guessing: many bad things can happen to her characters, but references to fairy tales hold hope that goodness might prevail. Still, multiple obsessions let you know that Happily Ever After is highly unlikely; add a bearded bird-caller, a blind albino child, a booming ringmaster who leans into insanity, mix it with a steampunk vibe, and you’ve got a tale that clinks and hisses and soars toward an ending that’s like a spear to your heart.

Fans of the three rings will enjoy this book, but readers who are captivated by shaded Victoriana will be happiest with it. If that’s you, then get “Circus of Wonders.” You want what it’s got.

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“Heartbreak: A Personal and Scientific Journey”

  • By Florence Williams
  • c. 2022, Norton
  • $30, 296 pages

Cupid can just take a hike. He’s messed up your life enough by now, and you’re not taking it anymore. That fat little cherub can just go away, vamoose, get lost, never again darken your doorstep with a quiver full of love arrows. No thanks, you’re already heading for divorce and you don’t need him around. Nope, as in the new book “Heartbreak” by Florence Williams, you need to heal yourself first.

She met him on a college camping trip.

“Heartbreak: A Personal and Scientific Journey” by Florence Williams.

He was the leader of the group, “a senior wearing John Lennon glasses and a blue bandanna...” They had identical last names; she joked that they “should get married someday!” and later, after sharing adventures and falling in love, they did.

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The first years were filled with great excitement, skiing, rafting, hiking, and “large and small triumphs and challenges.” Then came a son, then a daughter, and Florence Williams realized that she was staying behind more often than not, while her husband continued on “through the rapids and the ski chutes...” She thought that was normal, but “What I see now is that it was the beginning of the end.”

He said he wanted to “find his soul mate.” She was gob smacked. He moved out, and they sent the kids to summer camp while they figured out the next steps. She held on to hope, feeling “sure we could put all the pieces back, but he was already boxing up the puzzle.”

Devastation is a mild word for what Williams felt. She lost weight, stopped eating, became seriously physically ill – nothing, she learned, that was unusual. She wanted love and started dating in all the wrong places. She found a therapist, spoke to prairie vole researchers, attended an EMDR workshop, had blood tests to track her progress, and fought loneliness. She visited an acupuncturist. She volunteered and explored the subject of grief. And in the end, the thing that might’ve helped most was an age-old cure...

Poets and songsters have been praising it for centuries. Billions of dollars are spent on romance novels annually in the U.S. We have an entire holiday dedicated to love, for cryin’ out loud, but the opposite is, “until recently, understudied.” So, what have we learned so far?

Much of the answer to that is in “Heartbreak,” and author Florence Williams makes it relevant through the power of story. She lays her soul bare here, making readers keenly understand her experiences with a very unexpected love-loss and what science says about the physical and mental effects of it. Williams adds her own emotions.

There’s a lot of camaraderie and comfort in that and some readers may find familiarity in the tale. They’ll also see new findings: the unsurprising, the unconventional, the (for most of us) unreachable, and the unbelievable.

Still, if you know the pain and gut-twist of rejection and love lost, there’s help for the lovelorn in this book, but buyer beware. You might heal from divorce just fine without “Heartbreak,” or you might find its support heavenly.

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The Bookworm is Terri Schlichenmeyer. She has been reading since she was 3 years old and never goes anywhere without a book. Terri lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books. Read past columns at marconews.com.