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Church of Marvels by Leslie Parry

Church of Marvels

by Leslie Parry

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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I’m going to avoid spoilers as much as possible, so I’ll keep plot details brief. There are three intersecting stories: that of Odile, a former carny trying to find her twin sister after losing almost everything in a fire; Sylvan, a night-soiler searching for the origins of a baby he finds while shoveling shit (really); and Alphie, a woman locked in an asylum because of her overbearing Italian mother-in-law. The only complaint I have with these three characters is that Sylvan is at times way too nice/likeable to be believed, but maybe that’s just my cynicism speaking.

The secondary characters are excellent. I DARE you to tell me you wouldn’t be terrified if you met the Signora in a dark alley. Though she is dead before the book begins, the mother of Odile and her sister Belle, Friendship Willingbird Church, is in the running for biggest badass in literature (also best name). Case in point:

“My mother was fearsome and beautiful, the impresario of the sideshow; she brought me and my sister up on sawdust, greasepaint, and applause. Her name—known throughout the music halls and traveling tent shows of America—was Friendship Willingbird Church. She was born to a clan of miners in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, but ran away from home when her older brother was killed at Antietam. She cut off her hair, joined the infantry, and saw her first battle at the age of fourteen. In the tent at night, she buried her face in the gunnysack pillow and wept bitterly thinking of him, hungry for revenge.”

There are more plot twists than you can shake a stick at. This is basically the modern, feminist version of Dickens; I kept thinking of Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith, though that’s not really a perfect comparison. One of the characters collects teeth. TEETH. That’s straight-up a page out of Miss Havisham’s book. At a certain point, you’ll get to a major plot twist and everything will make so much more sense. There were several plot twists which made me re-read the paragraph multiple times because I was thinking, “Fuck, does that mean what I think it means? Wait, really? How did I miss that???”
Most of the novel takes place in the seedy underbelly of turn-of-the-century NYC (thank CHRIST b/c I’m really tired of hearing about rich people, Downton Abbey), but all of it is described with completely lovely prose.

It’s seriously been AT LEAST a year since I’ve read a book I liked this much, the last one I can recall being Octavia Butler’s Kindred (don’t talk to me about Fledgling, though). There’s some fantastic exploration of identity and disguises and healing. I loved the prose, found the characters intriguing, and kept turning the pages to discover the next twist. A great read, in my opinion. ( )
  jsheilas | Oct 13, 2017 |
I cannot recommend this enough! There are surprises and connections at every turn. Brilliant! ( )
  ilerya82 | Sep 19, 2017 |
I wanted to like this book, but alas, I didn't. There were characters that were well defined, but the writing style was way to rambling, switching back and forth, back and forth until my head was spinning. Too often, I had to go back and re-read to try to find the thread.

The setting is New York, NY at the turn of the century. This is not the New York of fashion, museums, stores with glitz, and jaw dropping architecture. This is lower East side gritty, urine in the street, begging to find food, hard scramble, knock down drag out of the gutter, only to be shoved back down again New York.

A baby is found by a young man who cleans toilets. The baby, is covered with excrement.
The man who found the baby takes us through the back alleys of opium and prostitution.

A woman is institutionalized and wants to find her baby. Her surroundings are tattered, dirty and filled with women guards who tie hands and feet and spit at faces.

A carney whose mother owned the operation seeks to find what happened to her twin sister. Aware of a fire that destroyed the Church of Marvels, she knows her mother died in the ashes. Endlessly roaming with memories of the Coney Island seashore, she strives to find the other half of her soul.

All three eventually come together, but it takes a long, long time to get to the conclusion.

One little star for a debut book written by an author who might try describing a tad of sunshine now and again. ( )
  Whisper1 | Jun 13, 2017 |
I loved this book. The characters came to life on the page. They were young people who had been rejected by society; some worked in a circus and others at lowly jobs where they could earn enough to survive. The story is cleverly woven and reveals how their lives intersect. The detail was wonderful and I truly cared about the outcome. There were a couple of surprises and all is eventually explained. ( )
  scot2 | Jan 24, 2017 |
A pretty deft story with intertwining threads (starting so disparately that I was quite confused) set in one of my favorite historical periods. One of the twists (not too gimmicky) actually left me open-mouthed for a bit. ( )
  jjaylynny | Nov 12, 2016 |
Showing 1-5 of 24 (next | show all)
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» Add other authors (1 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Leslie Parryprimary authorall editionscalculated
Tierney, JimCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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"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" -- Amazon.com… (more)

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