The Transformation of Bartholomew Fortuno by Ellen Bryson
When Fyrefly and Alayne reviewed The Transformation of Bartholomew Fortuno, they weren’t impressed–Fyrefly didn’t like Bartholomew himself, and Alayne just found it dull. Alayne was sweet enough to send me her advanced review copy of The Transformation of Bartholomew Fortuno when I asked; once a book is on my reading list, there is no escape from it. (Unless it personally offends me.) Because of its lackluster reviews from those reviews I trust, I wasn’t exactly looking forward to it, but I wanted it out of the way before I dug into A Game of Thrones.
I was pleasantly surprised. (Although I think I was better served by the fact that I’ve never read Geek Love or Water for Elephants, which it has been compared to.)
The Transformation of Bartholomew Fortuno follows the titular Bartholomew Fortuno, the world’s Thinnest Man, during the summer of 1865. Bartholomew works at P. T. Barnum’s American Museum and enjoys his life–he has good friends among his fellow attractions, and he views his line of work as a way to share his philosophy of total self-control with the unwashed masses. But when the mysterious Mrs. Iell Adams joins the Museum as a bearded lady, Bartholomew becomes a man obsessed. As his attraction towards Iell grows stronger and stronger, Bartholomew finds himself increasingly isolated, becoming a tool of Barnum and his fearsome wife, and, most devastatingly of all, questioning his firm identity as the world’s Thinnest Man.
Let me first address the character of Bartholomew; I was expecting someone a bit more mean, a la the original design for Woody in Toy Story (oh yeah, Woody was going to be a jerk). Instead, I found Bartholomew to be, while not a sympathetic character, an understandable one; his snobbish attitude towards other people, especially people who aren’t “freaks”, is explained by his backstory, and his attitude towards women is a product of the times. While Fyrefly rightly points out that his titular transformation doesn’t completely change him, I feel it does enough. While I don’t wish to spoil the end, I feel it’s made very clear that Bartholomew’s failure at the end is completely on him. However, I don’t think Bartholomew’s obsession with Iell is overtly presented as damaging and creepy as it is. While I obviously read it as such, I would have preferred for it to be a little less subtle.
I quite liked the rest of Bartholomew’s motley crew, especially Matina, the Big Lady, a sweet beauty who loves her friend but, when pushed, will push back. (This is why I feel Bartholomew’s attitude towards women is dealt with properly; the three main women in his life disprove his ideas, no matter how much he clings to them.) Iell is suitably mysterious and fascinating, and I liked how she managed Bartholomew. Barnum is, as he must be, larger than life, and, although he doesn’t make that many appearances, his presence is always felt through his need to make a spectacle of everything. However, my favorite minor character has to be Bridgett, a scullery maid turned exotic attraction who enjoys her new position to the hilt, to Bartholomew’s disapproval. At the end of the novel, she simply shrugs and tells him that a girl has to do what she can to survive in this world. (Plus, Bridgett is an amazing name.)
The Transformation of Bartholomew Fortuno is a novel that’s fairly thin on plot. Iell and her connection to the Barnums is the main mystery, with a lesser mystery concerning an arsonist at the Museum. (Appallingly, this second mystery is dismissed and set aside, with a brief mention at the end, despite how important it is to the main plot.) Bryson makes up for that with atmosphere and research; not only are we inside what is essentially a freakshow, but it’s also the summer in New York after Lincoln was murdered. We see how these “freaks” are treated, both by the outside world and themselves. All of the “freaks” at the Museum are glad to have escaped more demeaning work out on the road, but they all believe in a hierarchy for people like themselves. (Bridgett, who is simply pretending to have a gift, is on the lowest rung.) The few trips into New York proper are interesting.
The main attraction of this novel is watching Bartholomew fall apart, really; Iell makes him question whether his inability to eat is biological or psychological, and his obsessive pursuit of Iell damages his personal relationships and his working ones–right before the book’s climax, at Barnum’s fifty-fifth birthday celebration, his employment is hanging by a thread. His transformation involves discovering “his true self”, as a Chinese contact of Bartholomew, puts it, no matter how far away from his perceived image of himself it is. Still, The Transformation of Bartholomew Fortuno is awfully light on plot, especially when it just drops the subplot entirely, and the ending feels a little abrupt. I can definitely see where Bartholomew can be a polarizing character. But if the time period or the setting interests you, it’s worth a read.
Bottom line: The Transformation of Bartholomew Fortuno is, sadly, a bit too light for a novel about what constitutes who we are, and even almost drops a subplot entirely. Still, if you’re interested in the time period or the setting, the tale of how the World’s Thinnest Man falls apart and rebuilds himself and his identity during his obsessive pursuit of a lovely bearded lady is hardly a bad way to spend an afternoon.
Alayne of A Crowded Leaf was sweet enough to send me her advanced review copy.