The Swan Gondola by Timothy Schaffert
Orphaned ventriloquist Ferret Skerritt is set to make a few bucks and have a fine summer plying his trade at the 1898 World’s Fair. As entertainers pour into the midway on opening day, Ferret spots a woman whose underthings he once helped secure backstage at his regular theater gig and his plans for romance are set. Ferret’s pursuit of Cecily unfolds amid the illusory grandeur and outlandish spectacle of The World’s Fair, as he relates the memory of that bygone summer to a pair of elderly twin sisters upon whose home he has crash landed. Big personalities, elaborate descriptions, mystery, magic, and illusion fill every page of The Swan Gondola.
I was beyond excited to read this novel, not only did I receive it as a free ARC from the publisher (my first), it is packed with things I adore. Going to a World’s Fair is on my bucket list, and I am a sucker for fairs and carnivals in general. Historical fiction, the American West, and unreliable narrators are a few of my favorite literary things. The Swan Gondola really delivers on all of these fronts. However, it falls short at perhaps the most crucial point for a story like this: the romance.
The story is driven by the Christian-and-Satine-esque courtship of Ferret and Cecily. He is young, naive, and romantic (though he thinks himself quite the worldly playboy, a fact both amusing and heartbreaking as he uncovers his own nature.) She is one of those scandalous theater women who throws social mores like underwear conventions to the wind and does what she wants whenever she wants. By underwear conventions I mean that most women of the time wore corsets and other garments as a matter of course, not that large groups of people were gathering to discuss underpinnings. His pursuit of her is dogged, and she allows him to lavish her with attention. A wealthy man, Billy Wakefield, who can provide her with opportunities on the stage strategically insinuates himself into their lives and the reader is witness to the slow destruction of the guileless Ferret.
Writing about this, I still think it all sounds pretty great. A lot of it was, but the problem was really Cecily. She’s almost unlikable, and Ferret’s interest in her never seems to progress beyond pure lust. Magic and illusion are major themes of the novel, and love often dances around the line between the two, so perhaps this was intentional. Ferret’s mistaking the illusion that is lust for the magic of love. However, he is so terribly lovable as an almost artless paramour that it’s hard to invest in any love story where you wish the object of his affections would fall off a cliff. Even if she did, you’d still feel awful because he would.
It might seem like I’m giving away the whole novel but really this takes us to about halfway through the high page count, and the back half is just brutal. Still a good read, but it’s going to beat up your feelings.
Where The Swan Gondola really sings are the secondary characters, like the Native American medicine man of fluid gender August Sweetbriar or Cecily’s elderly half-blind witch of a bodyguard, and descriptions of the setting. The Fair, Billy Wakefield’s home and amusements, and the underworld Ferret occupies are each spectacular in their own way and make for some very fun reading. The scaffolding of the novel is beautifully crafted, all of the subplots and scenery. It’s a shame that the main plot lets the rest of it down. Ferret and Cecily’s romance seems over before it began, the titular gondola barely plays a role, and the reader is put through a house of horrors playing on their feelings about a barely-developed romance that spanned less than half the page-count. Ferret’s heartsickness carries it, but just barely.
What does it all mean? Should you read this book? If any of this sounded at all interesting to you, then I’d say yes. It’s really a very good story, and will give you a lot to mull over. It’s a book club book if there ever was one, because it can be interpreted so many ways. Just don’t go in expecting a romance for the ages unless you want your heart pulped and/or to feel ragey.