On a summer evening in 1931, Lilly Blackwood glimpses circus lights from the grimy window of her attic bedroom. Lilly isn’t allowed to explore the meadows around Blackwood Manor. She’s never even ventured beyond her narrow room. Momma insists it’s for Lilly’s own protection, that people would be afraid if they saw her. But on this unforgettable night, Lilly is taken outside for the first time–and sold to the circus sideshow.
More than two decades later, nineteen-year-old Julia Blackwood has inherited her parents’ estate and horse farm. For Julia, home was an unhappy place full of strict rules and forbidden rooms, and she hopes that returning might erase those painful memories. Instead, she becomes immersed in a mystery involving a hidden attic room and photos of circus scenes featuring a striking young girl.
At first, The Barlow Brothers’ Circus is just another prison for Lilly. But in this rag-tag, sometimes brutal world, Lilly discovers strength, friendship, and a rare affinity for animals. Soon, thanks to elephants Pepper and JoJo and their handler, Cole, Lilly is no longer a sideshow spectacle but the circus’s biggest attraction. . .until tragedy and cruelty collide. It will fall to Julia to learn the truth about Lilly’s fate and her family’s shocking betrayal, and find a way to make Blackwood Manor into a place of healing at last.
I’m finding it very difficult to put into words how I feel about this book. On one hand I really enjoyed it, but on the other hand I found it quite heart-breaking. So I ask myself – How can something that is so heart-breaking be enjoyable? This is where my struggle for this review lies.
The synopsis does a very good job of setting the stage for this book. Anything I could say here about that would be very repetitive. The book is told by Lilly and Julia in alternating perspectives and time periods. These two young girls/women both experienced difficult upbringings, but they each took a very different path in life.
I have read several historical fiction books with the circus theme, but this one is quite different because it focuses on the side-show aka “the freak show”. We are taken into the world of those who are different from ourselves. You would think they would be upset to be put on display and gawked at, but as Glory (the tattoo girl) tells us – if there is no “freak show” they wouldn’t have a job, so for that they are grateful.
From the day Lilly was born she was subjected to rejection and abuse. She asks for very little out of life other than to understand why. Once she was sold to the circus, I had high hopes that things would turn around for her and they did for a period of time. She found friendship and love, things she never thought would be possible while locked up in the attic. Unfortunately her life took a turn for the worse, you’ll have to read the book to find out more about that.
Julia’s storyline read more like a mystery to me and was a bit sad, but not nearly as heart-breaking as Lilly’s. She ran away from home at the age of fifteen after her father passed away, and her mother blamed her for her dad’s death. She promptly returns home after receiving a letter telling her that her mom has passed away and Blackwood Manor House Farm is now hers. Now that she is home she decides once and for all to uncover the secrets of Blackwood Manor. She wants to know why her mother was always so cold and why her father always kept his distance.
Both of these story lines touched my heart but Lilly’s story was heart-wrenching. She stole my heart and I just wanted to give her a big hug and take her under my wing. I cannot imagine how lonely and rejected Lilly must have felt living in the attic and how scary it must have been for her to be sold to a circus at the young age of nine. It did my heart good to see her form some special relationships in the circus, so there is a silver lining.
I do have to give you a little warning. There is some animal abuse that was a difficult to read. My heart always bleeds for innocent animals. It is not the main focus of the book, but I felt a warning was warranted nonetheless.
I enjoyed reading the Author’s Note and learning where she came up with the inspiration for this book. I always enjoy getting a glimpse into an author’s head and seeing their creative process. I think this book would make a really good book club read, there is so much to talk about and it would be really interesting to hear the perspectives of others.
*Thank you NetGalley, Kensington Publishing Corporation, and Ellen Marie Wiseman for the opportunity to read and review this book for my honest opinion.
My Rating: 4/5
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: Kensington Publishing Corporation
Pages: 304 (Kindle)