May 2024
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Review: The Transformation of Bartholomew Fortuno, Ellen Bryson

Bartholomew Fortuno is one of several regular acts at P T Barnum’s American Museum in New York City.  He is the stereotypical thin man; he eats virtually nothing to the point where his bones and organs are clearly delineated beneath his skin.  He doesn’t see his act as mere human fascination with the grotesque; instead he hopes to connect with those in the audience by showing them their true nature.  When a mysterious new act, a woman with a beard, arrives at the museum, Bartholomew finds himself enthralled and abandons his old friends in favor of the new woman.  When he discovers that she isn’t what she seems, he’s forced to reevaluate his entire life and career.

Unfortunately this is a book I just felt rather “meh” about.  It’s made it very difficult to write this review.  I was quite excited by the prospect of it at first.  I’m really interested in the history of the circus and just read quite an interesting non-fiction YA book on Tom Thumb, who was a figure at the American Museum, so I was eager to enjoy this exciting era through fiction. I wasn’t quite as enthralled as I’d hoped, but I did enjoy the book overall.

In some ways, it did live up to what I expected of it.  I was fascinated by the way that Bartholomew defines himself through his physical self, the way his thinness and unnatural lack of hunger has changed the way he’s lived his life.  He almost gets arrogant about his body, convinced that he’s truly something special, rather than a man who starves himself to become a freak that is gawked at by countless people every day.  It led me to wonder if that was how I’d cope, should this have been my life.  Would I too ascribe such importance to my physical dimensions and give myself airs because I exposed some part of human nature others couldn’t see in themselves?  I don’t know, but it was quite fascinating.

As a result of his arrogance, though, I didn’t really ever come to like Fortuno.  I hated his fixation with the bearded lady, his refusal to see the world as it really was.  He truly gets airs about himself and neglects his friends – people who genuinely care about him – in favor of this woman who really doesn’t care what happens to him.  He is completely out of touch with reality, which is an essential facet of his character but made him so hard to like.

There isn’t much else to this novel beyond Fortuno’s slow reevaluation of the world around him, which makes it a bit of a slow read, but it is nevertheless interesting.  I particularly enjoyed the thorough imagining of the American Museum.  It really helped me picture what it might have been to live there, especially as one of the exhibits.  I felt for many of those who weren’t Bartholomew, and I wished for their lives to get better and for them to escape the exploitation.

Though I think The Transformation of Bartholomew Fortuno could have been more, it was still an enjoyable read.  I would recommend it to anyone else who is interested in thinking about the origins of the circus or New York City in the mid 19th century.

I am an Amazon Associate. I received this book for free from the publisher for review.


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