Summary and book reviews of Church of Marvels by Leslie Parry

Church of Marvels

by Leslie Parry

Church of Marvels by Leslie Parry
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    May 2015, 320 pages
    Paperback:
    May 2016, 352 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Rebecca Foster

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Book Summary

A ravishing first novel, set in vibrant, tumultuous turn-of-the-century New York City, where the lives of four outsiders become entwined, bringing irrevocable change to them all.

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. In magnetic, luminous prose, Leslie Parry offers a richly atmospheric vision of the past in a narrative of astonishing beauty, full of wondrous enchantments, a marvelous debut that will leave readers breathless.

Chapter One
New York City, 1895

Sylvan found the baby on a balmy summer night, when he was digging out the privies behind a tenement on Broome Street. All night long the damp air had clung to his skin like a fever, and now, with only a few blocks left before his shift ended, he was huddled halfway inside a buckling stall, his vision blurring and his arms growing numb. Beside him the other night-soilers, slope backed and sweating in the privy doorways, bent and pushed and hoisted and slung. They kept up a rhythm—shovels scraping at the bricks, waste slapping in the buckets, mud sucking at their boots.

Sylvan was hunched over the pit, sifting through the mire, when his shovel came up under something solid and heavy. He stopped and squinted, but it was too dark to see anything. He gripped the handle and watched the shovel head quiver up into the lamplight. Five pink toes pearled above the falling slop, then a foot, then an ankle. Leaning in closer, he saw a small face, still as ...

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

For as impressive as I found the plotting and language, I was slightly unsatisfied with the characterization. Because the story is divided between three sets of characters, I felt I never got to know some of the main figures, especially Odile, as well as I might like. The kitchen-sink approach to the plot means Parry has to spend a lot of time tying up loose ends, whereas if there were fewer characters and subplots she could have focused on exploring them more deeply. Nevertheless, this is a very atmospheric and accomplished debut novel. Circus and sideshow themes have been very popular in fiction in recent years, and this is a great example of a novel that uses those elements as background but goes beyond the incidentals of the carnival lifestyle to examine sexuality and societal outcasts.   (Reviewed by Rebecca Foster).

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Media Reviews

Kansas City Star

[U]tterly captivating… In her first novel, Parry… has proven herself more than capable of sustaining suspense, with a succession of cliffhangers compelling us to turn the page… this book demands a second read.

Publishers Weekly

[Parry's] novel satisfies as a complex historical fiction, a compelling mystery, and an insightful exploration of such themes as otherness and outsider identity.

Kirkus Reviews

Beautifully written, Parry's imaginative novel is most successful when exploring the limitations and complexities of gender and sexuality during its historical period.

Booklist

Emphasizing the plight of women, orphans, and society’s nonconforming outcasts, the setting is superbly showcased, with its medley of sights and smells both wretched and wondrous. Especially recommended for admirers of atmospheric nineteenth-century historicals like Emma Donoghue’s Frog Music.

Author Blurb Emma Donoghue, author of Room
This quite literally marvelous novel takes you on a hallucinatory ride through old New York, until the four threads of its protagonists' lives tangle and tighten like a noose. Irresistible.

Author Blurb Lyndsay Faye, author of Gods of Gotham
Rarely have I read any novel that gripped me so viscerally from the first page, and continued to stoke my burning interest to the last… its plot is wound like a Swiss watch and its characters devastatingly real. This book is important for more reasons than I can list.

Author Blurb Jessie Burton, author of The Miniaturist
[A] beautifully written tale … I loved the circus-seaside atmosphere mingled with the grit of turn of the century New York, the cast of characters possessed with such spirit to survive in terrible circumstances, and the bittersweet finale. A skillful triumph, undertaken with masterful scope

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Beyond the Book

Coney Island Amusements

Coney Island, Brooklyn has long been known as a seaside vacation destination. As early as the 1830s, it was a retreat for New York City workers, and its attraction grew as it became more accessible by train, streetcar, and steamboat. Between the 1880s and World War II, Coney Island was the nation's foremost leisure area, with three large amusement parks in competition with each other, plus numerous smaller attractions.

Thompsons Switchback Railway Attraction at Coney Island Steeplechase Park, the first of Coney Island's major establishments, opened in 1897, followed by Luna Park in 1903 and Dreamland in 1904. All three parks suffered devastating fires (as did Phineas T. Barnum's American Museum in the 1860s), so the demise of the titular theater in Leslie Parry's Church of Marvels is ...

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