But first, a tiny bit of plot, not because something will be given away if I give a lot of plot, rather I am simply giving a tiny bit because this is the type of book where nothing happens, yet everything happens. The plot is very inconsequential to whether or not you would enjoy the book.
The story begins and ends with Ferret, a ventriloquist/con man. The entire story is framed around Ferret’s escape from the 1898 Omaha World’s Fair in a hot air balloon, and while we keep returning to that “present” from which Ferret is recounting his story, the bulk of the tale is Ferret’s story of falling in love with Cecily, a performer at the Fair.
We spend Ferret’s days with him as he works the fair with his dummy, follows Cecily, watches her perform, meets new people, and has adventures.
The publisher’s sound bite is:
"A lush and thrilling romantic fable about two lovers set against the scandalous burlesques, midnight séances, and aerial ballets of the 1898 Omaha World’s Fair. “
I think this makes the book sound more action packed than it truly is. This is a fable, told in the form of an homage to The Wizard of Oz. The bulk of the action is taking place at the Fair, but there isn’t much action. This is a leisurely paced, historical set piece. It is all about the setting and the tone. You inhabit the place with Ferret, our narrator. You meet his friends and associates. These are people who live on the fringes, and we are meant to follow along.
Ferret and Cecily’s story has a macabre tone, in fact it is more like a ghost story than a romance, but an old-fashioned ghost story in the Gothic tradition. Atmosphere rules here. The entire story is set slightly askew. Their love story is odd, the people they know and meet are all over the top, but interesting. Theirs is a doomed love, but we know this from the start as Ferret is recovering from his balloon crash and slowly unveils the entire novel to the elderly sisters who are caring for him.
While reading The Swan Gondola, I began to realize that it would become a book best characterized as “perfect for Becky.” This is my kind of book all around-- odd, interesting, character driven, macabre, with historical details [involving a fair or carnival (bonus Becky love)], a frame that pays homage to another work of literature, and all of it told in a quirky, slightly askew way.
Now this being said, a perfect book for Becky does not mean I am out at the desk thrusting this book into every patron’s hand. No, I am actually much more discerning about who I hand sell this book too because I realize how quirky it is. I have only given it to one person so far, carefully chosen, and she liked it. It is a book I will keep in my perverbial back pocket for years to come, puling it out at the right moment, for just the right patron.
But for now, I was happy to inhabit the world of The Swan Gondola for a few enjoyable days. I may even go back out for another ride some day.
Three Words That Describe This Book: Atmospheric, historical, macabre
Readalikes: Because The Swan Gondola is so much the classic Becky book, I have a ton of books which I have loved that share this same feel. I will list them with links to my reviews in no particular order:
- Centuries of June by Keith Donohue
- The Giant’s House by Elizabeth McCracken [This is actually the best match overall and a personal favorite read. I have no review because I read it too long ago, but here is a link to the other times I have mentioned McCracken.]
- Swamplandia! by Karen Russell
- The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint or The Lonely Polygamist by Brady Udall
- The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivy
For a more traditional readalike suggestion, if you have a patron who loved all the parts in The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson about the fair, but could have done without the murder investigation, than this is a great choice for him or her.
And of course, people who love the original L. Frank Baum Wizard of Oz tales will gobble up this book. I would think twice about giving it to patrons who only love the movie version though.