5 out of 5 stars ★★★★★
New York, 1895. Sylvan Threadgill, a night soiler cleaning out the privies behind the tenement houses, finds an abandoned newborn baby in the muck. An orphan himself, Sylvan rescues the child, determined to find where she belongs.
Odile Church and her beautiful sister, Belle, were raised amid the applause and magical pageantry of The Church of Marvels, their mother’s spectacular Coney Island sideshow. But the Church has burnt to the ground, their mother dead in its ashes. Now Belle, the family’s star, has vanished into the bowels of Manhattan, leaving Odile alone and desperate to find her.
A young woman named Alphie awakens to find herself trapped across the river in Blackwell’s Lunatic Asylum—sure that her imprisonment is a ruse by her husband’s vile, overbearing mother. On the ward she meets another young woman of ethereal beauty who does not speak, a girl with an extraordinary talent that might save them both.
As these strangers’ lives become increasingly connected, their stories and secrets unfold. Moving from the Coney Island seashore to the tenement-studded streets of the Lower East Side, a spectacular human circus to a brutal, terrifying asylum, Church of Marvels takes readers back to turn-of-the-century New York—a city of hardship and dreams, love and loneliness, hope and danger. In magnetic, luminous prose, Leslie Parry offers a richly atmospheric vision of the past in a narrative of astonishing beauty, full of wondrous enchantments?a marvelous debut that will leave readers breathless.
I was debating between a 4 or 5 star rating, but I just really loved the writing, so I went for the max star rating. This book covered a lot of things I like: historical fiction set in old time-y NYC (1895), beautiful prose, interesting characters, fantastic interwoven plot, and just overall great tone and pacing. It all came together so beautifully.
We’re following four characters, Sylvan, Alphie, Odile, and Belle, as they each begin their search for one another. Odile searches for her sister, Sylvan searches for the mother of the baby, Alphie searches for answers, and Odile searches for redemption. One of the most impressive parts of the plot is how easily everything fit together, the slow build to the point where they are all in the same location, at the same conclusion–their timelines are running parallel. Alphie and Belle are connected through one change in a plan, which finds them in an insane asylum for women. Odile finds Sylvan, and the baby, and they begin their search for Alphie and Belle, though it’s never what is expected. It’s the tiny details, like the man’s coat with the stitched hem, the corner of Orchard and Broome streets, the history of Belle, Odile, and the loss of The Church of Marvels. But in an impressive feat, their history reaches beyond their own lives.
But then there’s a surprise twist at the end, where a character is revealed to actually been a man (rather than a woman she was dressing up as), and from there the plot begin to piece itself together. The inclusion of gay and transgender characters really says a lot about how the writer was conscious of her characters and their complexities. The emotions that surround the two sisters, constantly revolving, guilt, grief, loneliness, all are palpable through the novel. Sylvan feels lost. Alphie is always trying to do right, but constantly a disappointment. I think in the end, they all get what they want, even if it’s not what others approve of.
It’s spectacular writing, every sense was detailed, down to the scent of the city. I was there and it was beautiful and smelly (much like today).
I can’t get enough of this book.