Also, I believe in SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS. Run away, fearful ones. If a book is spoiled for you by knowing how it turns out, well, one wonders what you think of Shakespeare.
This is a circus novel. It lacks the fantasy elements of Morgenstern's _The Night Circus_. It does not have the retrospective memoir tone of Gruen's _Water for Elephants_. Yet it fits into that space nicely.
There are two viewpoint characters. Emile Guillaudeu as a young man was sent to New York by his mother, who was afraid for him in Revolutionary France. He is in his mid 50s during the events of this novel. He lost the contact information for the people he was to go to and wound up at an orphanage, then brought up by John Scudder, who was the first creator of what would become Barnum's American Museum. In the book, he becomes a taxidermist, creating a large fraction of the exhibits for the science-heavy early version of the Museum. Edie is John's daughter, and Emile would have perhaps made a move, but Edie ran off with someone else who then abandoned her. Barnum approaches John to take over the museum in the backstory; Emile is horrified and blames both Scudders for rendering him an "orphan" once again. This feeling of abandonment and horror at change in general leads him to walk out of the city (being robbed in the Five Points along the way), spend a couple nights sleeping in the Great Outdoors, and then bartering a copy of Linnaeus given him by Edie to return to the museum where he becomes reconciled to the changes just in time for them to Change Again. His new role is to care for the living animals; the death of the sloth sort of guilts him into it. The Scudders, meanwhile, have pressured a scientific society, the Lyceum, to invite him to join. When he attends, he meets Lillian Kipp, who he will ultimately follow to London after the Museum is destroyed by fire. There, he will eulogize the now-dead Ana Swift. I've skipped over the Congress; I'll come back to it.
The other viewpoint character is Ana Swift, the 8 ft giantess from Nova Scotia. She is based on Anna Swan. Ana's personal history is explored extensively, but the reader is left uncertain about what is real, and what is Ana's imagining, as she writes her True Life History, the basis for Emile's future paeans to her, and the pamphlets she sells in her booth for extra money. Further, elements of what are clearly Not Real for Ana Swift (getting married, living on a farm, being a Believer) became true for Anna Swan after the 1865 fire which destroyed the museum, the fictional version of which was used by Ana Swift to end her life, but which Anna Swan survived (coverage of which was more extensive in the contemporary New York Tribune than the NYT).
Anna Swan and Ana Swift presented a highly cultured, educated, polite, well-groomed appearance to onlookers. Ana Swift's interior life, like Emile's, is grim and conflicted. Both people are shown despairing at all relationships, past, present and hypothetical. They loathe themselves and everyone around them, and often prefer to be alone with their admittedly unpleasant selves rather than be forced to endure the presence of others -- any others. A variety of people make social overtures to them, and both Emile and Ana respond to these overtures which naivete, discovering ulterior motives and politics only after the fact. Both venture out of the museum only briefly, Emile on his wandering and Ana on her Easter visit to the church and her visit to the rich patroness' party with the mesmerist, which is the only magical realism moment in the book (the mesmerist comes up with Nora, which Ana reflects was her mother's name -- Anna Swan's mother was Ann Graham).
There are numerous clues that this cannot be treated as a historical novel. It is not possible to accurately position the events of the novel in a _decade_, altho numerous reviewers have asserted it is set in the 1840s. The Chinese giant who worked for Barnum did not work for him until 1881. The fire which destroyed the museum occurred in 1865. Harper was mayor for a few years in the 1840s. Grizzly Adams is depicted with a head wound that clearly indicates 1860. The Grand Ethnological Congress doesn't happen until the 1870s, and then in the context of a traveling show, not the Museum.
In the hands of a less capable writer, I would suspect incompetency, but in addition to knowing That's Not the Stacy I Know, there is no way anyone produces a detail like Adams' head wound without noticing the date, never mind the details in the depiction of Ana Swift's death which indicate the author must have read the NYT coverage. Carlson has consciously used the details of Barnum's life and work as a source for archetypal musings -- the museum (which she carefully has Barnum-in-the-book tell us is etymologically unrelated to musing) is a Cabinet of Wonders filled with all kinds of metaphors.
The theme most obvious to me was the Problems of a New Organization. The story could not be set in the 1860s at the end of the museum's lifetime for two big reasons. (1) Emile needed to have a musty past be destroyed, and he'd never join a new enterprise, so this had to occur at the time the museum went from being John Scudder's American Museum to its rebirth as Barnum's American Museum. (2) The rest of the cast are people who have made a change to an uncertain enterprise in hopes of a better, more independent and/or remunerative position. Olrick departs when he is convinced to accept a more traditional arrangement with a manager; the rest of the Wonderful are contemptuous of that choice. He argues he needs more stability; Maud remarks you cannot get more stability than living in the museum.
I gotta say: it really felt like a coded depiction of life in a startup.
The next theme that caught my attention was the Progress of the Spirit, in this case, with no emphasis on a God with a distinct Personhood and separate from His Creation, it felt very Buddhist. The viewpoint characters wrestled with their manifold nature: the desires they tried to deny but could not, the powerful draw they felt to others, even as they loathed everyone, their joys in occasional moments of wonder and discovery, the visceral impact of deception and despair and their slowly developing acceptance of themselves and the day to day world around them. Emile begins with a Sartrean, No Exit, "Hell is other people", after he is robbed at the Five Points and he continues his wandering because he's not afraid of places, only people. He moves through a period where he packs up everything he used to love and begins to care for the animals neglect is killing. He enacts his professional role, even to the point of advising on exhibits (altho he believes he is pretending when what he is doing is real, he does not yet fully accept himself). He ends on stage with Lillian Kipp -- who he met through the maneuvering of the Scudders when they worried about him and lobbied the Lyceum to invited him to join -- eulogizing the heroically deceased Ana Swift.
Ana begins by enacting the role she has been given through a combination of practicality and disgust: make a booth, write a True Life History. But with no one to create the role for her, Swift tries to do it on her own, and writes many variations on what actually happened to her. The process causes her to muse on what was real and what was not, what could have been and what opportunities lie before her (ironically, she discards some of the opportunities her inspiration, Anna Swan, went on to live). She keeps rebuffing those who make overtures to her, only to give in, and be taken advantage of once again. Eventually, however, as she recognizes in herself the same kind of use of the pain of others (when she uses the Aztec Children as leverage in a negotiation with Barnum) to advance her own aims, and that her outrage is not at what happened to the children, but the damage to her pride that resulted, she establishes a limited relationship with a peer, the Chinese giant Tai Shan. Her apotheosis involves saving women and children, and a four elements departure from this realm, moving from on high in the air, ending in the ground, surfing a wave while surrounded by fire. Oh, and with echos of 9/11.
A third theme is labeled clearly by Carlson: Scipio's Dream. It is one of the exhibits, and referred to in a paragraph clearly inspired by Thornton Wilder's "Our Town". It is part of Emile's story, and he returns to it two more times: while he wanders and while he is advising the carpenters in setting up the stages for the second transformation of the museum (the third transformation being its destruction by fire). It has to do with the smallness of everything we experience, the randomness of our travels through our lives, our nevertheless persistent efforts to make sense of it all, and, in the end, however jumbled up it all becomes in the telling, the Wondrousness of It All.
I'm sure there's more; I read the book over the course of two days and have been in a bit of a hurry as I have jury duty tomorrow and am not sure if I'll have time to read before book group in the evening. I think this is a book which would reward rereading, and I look forward to our discussion Monday evening.
Some reviewers have expressed concern about the handling of race in this novel. I think they missed the point, mostly; I thought the author was doing some nuanced things with 19th century ideas of race and civilization (which is why Tai Shan winds up being such a cartoon-y superhero) and I can see that not coming through. The NYT review _really_ seemed to not get it, and the Publisher's Weekly was kinder but equally oblivious. The major failing is in perceiving this as a historical novel. It's not.
"Antebellum America is a period so far removed from us that I consider it in the realm of folklore. ... PT Barnum peddled dreams in a labyrinthine museum whose resemblance to Pandora’s box I try not to belabor. I was fascinated by the fictional possibilities of Barnum’s museum and inspired by the confluence (or collision) between the encyclopedic world view of the 18th century and the modern age of science and entertainment. Among the Wonderful is the result of this fascination."
Postmodern? Folklore? Buddhist fairy tale? Parable of working in a startup? Finding a new family, when the family of origin Really Didn't Work Out for You? All of these and more can be found _Among the Wonderful_, but it's a complex and open work, admitting many interpretations.