There is something about a book with a circus in it that promises the spectacular. Touted as Suffragette meets The Greatest Showman, Australian author Tania Farrelly‘s debut novel The Eighth Wonder is the story of Rose Kingsbury Smith, a young woman living in the privileged neighbourhood of the Upper East Side in New York at the turn of the last century.
New York of the late 1800s is filled with spectacles of all kinds, including the grand unveiling of the Brooklyn Bridge, an architectural and logistical marvel. At the opening of this bridge, twenty-one circus elephants were paraded across the structure in order to demonstrate to a sceptical public that it was safe to cross. More spectacular to young Rose, however, present at the opening with her father, was the involvement of Emily Roebling, an engineer in her own right whose contributions ensured that the bridge could be completed when her husband Washington developed compression disease and became bedridden.
As a young woman, Rose’s life is already subject to a number of limitations. And that’s without mentioning those caused by an illness that require her to walk with a cane. But inspired by Mrs Roebling, and encouraged by her father, Rose is determined to become an architect and be the first woman to study at the Academie des Beaux-Arts.
Also present on the bridge that day is Ethan Salt, an orphan who lives off his wits. It is the elephants parading across the bridge that capture his imagination, and he follows them back to the circus determined to get a job. Once behind the curtain, Ethan witnesses the cruel ways in which the animals are treated by their trainers. He vows to protect those he can, and soon starts a motley menagerie in an old building on Coney Island. His venture is beset by money problems, as well as the objections of people who believe his animals to be dangerous.
The Eighth Wonder is predominately Rose’s story. Her home life has an almost Pride and Prejudice dynamic, as her mother attempts to make a suitable match for Rose among polite society. Mrs Kingsbury Smith, though she is only trying to do what is best for her family, takes on a comical and at times villainous role as her ways are pitted against those of her daughter and husband.
On the other hand, Rose enjoys a close relationship with her father, who indulges his only child, recognises her talent and allows her to apprentice herself to him at his architecture firm. But the family’s finances are tight, and the actions of both mother and father are not above reproach here, forcing Rose to compromise her dreams in order to get by in a man’s world.
Rose is a character with a lot of strength and determination. She is loyal to her friends and has a very modern sensibility about her, which make her easy for the modern reader to relate to. Tania Farrelly has deftly created a situation – complicated as it is – where it is easy to understand why Rose makes the decisions that she does. The first three quarters of the book seem to fly by in a breathless sort of momentum, only tripped up every so often by the odd overwrought passage (for example: “After an interminable afternoon of self-recrimination, Rose stood outside her father’s study, prevaricating.”) Most of the time, the book’s emotional journey makes sense and is appropriately pitched. This is a highly compelling historical novel.
It is only at the end when the wheels feel like they may be about to fall off. Having created a densely populated fictional version of New York society, and after nearly three hundred and fifty pages of setting up complex plot points, Farrelly’s ending tends toward the melodramatic. I won’t give spoilers, but suffice to say that some of her resolutions feel a little convenient. In this final section, the overwrought writing is far more apparent, too, which disrupts the easy flow of the book.
Not to say that the ending is unreadable, or negates the rest of the book. It doesn’t. But it does have a subtle, yet noticeable shift in style, which breaks the spell somewhat. This was so nearly a five star book for me, and I eagerly await whatever it is that Tania Farrelly will write next.