Bartholomew Fortuno works for showman P. T. Barnum at his American Museum in New York in 1865. He is billed as the world's thinnest man. He lives and works alongside a host of other 'Curiosities', including a rubber man, a strong man, Marina the fat woman, with whom he shares a close friendship and many more. Bartholomew is content with his life and sharing what he calls 'his gift' with the paying public. To Marina he says;
"We teach the world. You know how I feel about this. Nothing in the world comes close to our artistry. To manifest ideals through the body! Your abundance. Alley's strength. My clarity. Why, it's as godlike as one can become."
Bartholomew's ordered life and the family atmosphere of the Museum (the attractions live there as well) are thrown into disarray by the arrival of a mysterious new Curiosity. Barty catches a glimpse of her, but Barnum seems determined to keep her separated from the others. That little glimpse is enough to enthrall Bartholomew. His interactions with the mysterious Iell challenge his beliefs."There is but one thing certain. No matter when we've received our gifts, we've all been blessed. Our uniqueness alone is enough to justify our special place in the world. But even more, our destiny insists we use our gifts the show others who they really are or show them what, in an ideal world , they could become. It may shock them at first, but, deep down, we open their eyes to greater possibilities."
Bryson has taken a fascinating piece of history and brought it to life. We've all had a glimpse of 'curiosities', both past and present. But Bryson brings a sense of humanity to the inhabitants of the Museum. Rather than being an exhibit, they come to life, infused with feelings, emotions, needs and wants. I liked Bartholomew very much as a character. His prim, proper ways, tempered with his burgeoning desire for more endeared him to me. Fleeting references to his past and his 'gift' heighten our desire to know more and serve to fuel his own enlightenment."Now here I would disagree. I do not believe we educate our audiences. I believe we frighten them and, in doing so, make them feel better about the dullness of their own lives. We don't open their eyes, Mr. Fortuno, we give them permission to keep them shut...Are we not the nightmare? The gargoyles at the edge of their world?"
Bartholomew's transformation - his journey to step outside the carefully chosen confines he lives in is an emotionally charged story that kept me enthralled from first page to last. Those looking for a fast paced read will not find it here. Rather, the speed of the book matches Bartholomew's emerging edification.
An impressive debut. I look forward to reading what Bryson next sets her pen to. Fans of Sara Gruen would enjoy this novel.
Read an excerpt of The Transformation of Bartholomew Fortuno. For book groups, a reading guide is also available.