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The Transformation of Bartholomew Fortuno: A Novel Hardcover – Bargain Price, June 22, 2010

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Inspired by a vintage circus photograph, Bryson's first novel tells the fictional story of the unusual relationship between two human curiosities from P.T. Barnum's American Museum. Bartholomew Fortuno, the world's thinnest man, is asked by Barnum to keep an eye on his latest acquisition—Iell Adams, the bearded woman, who is kept in seclusion until the impresario can introduce her to the world. Fascinated by her and desiring a transformative experience, Bartholomew falls hopelessly in love with Iell, much to the surprise of his fellow Curiosities. Bartholomew also gets caught in the middle of a war between Barnum and his jealous wife for control of Iell's future. The story culminates at Barnum's birthday party, where Bartholomew is shocked to discover Iell's big secret. Though thin on plot, this work sympathetically conjures up the backstage world of Barnum's museum and the pecking order of his Curiosities, and magically transports the reader back in time to Gilded Age New York. Fans of Water for Elephants are sure to want to enter this wondrous midway attraction of a novel. (July)
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Review

"It must have been something, America at the end of the Civil War, and debut novelist Bryson imagines it beautifully in her inspired drama about freaks, showmen and the forces that twist our insides. Opening just after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, the curtains part to reveal a sideshow within a spectacle, namely the singular attraction that was Barnum's American Museum in New York City, owned by narcissistic showman P.T. Barnum. . . . Bartholomew is a wonderful character who doesn’t struggle against his self-image but revels in it, challenging audiences with his bravado. . . . A rich tapestry of romance, illusory science, criminal trickery and human intrigue. Let the show begin."—Kirkus Reviews

"This work sympathetically conjures up the backstage world of Barnum’s museum and the pecking order of his Curiosities, and magically transports the reader back in time to Gilded Age New York. Fans of Water for Elephants are sure to want to enter this wondrous midway attraction of a novel."—Publishers Weekly

"Debut novelist Bryson has concocted fascinating historical fiction about one of showman P.T. Barnum's 'curiosities' who worked in the confines of Barnum's famous American Museum in lower Manhattan in the mid-19th century.... Bryson is a natural storyteller, and the fascinating interpersonal dynamics of her enticing characters keep readers' interest.... A strong first novelrecommended."—Library Journal

"Bryson, a proverbial ringmaster, delves deep into context, roping the assassination of Lincoln, scents of Chinatown, and heart-wrenching human misconceptions into poetic prose that captures the attention of ladies and gentleman, boys and girls of all ages."—Daily Candy

"Rich with magic.... Uncovering Iell's secrets leads Fortuno to expose his own, and this subtle but profound transformation casts a spell over the narrative until the last pages. Novel and character are awakened by the magnetic Iell, who makes Fortuno feel 'empty and full at the same time. Hungry and satiated.' By the end of the novel, readers should feel that way, too."—Christine Thomas, Miami Herald

"Riotous and touching.... It’s one delicious story."—Ann La Farge, The Hudson Valley News

"Ellen Bryson has found a doozy of a story to tell, and she tells the hell out of it. Earnest, accurate, entertaining—this book lets us peek into the life of a great circus, and the great circus of life itself."—Darin Strauss, author of More Than It Hurts You and Chang and Eng

"Ellen Bryson's The Transformation of Bartholomew Fortuno is an atmospheric and enthralling story of one of the great, lost legends of New York."—Kevin Baker, author of Strivers Row and Dreamland

"The Transformation of Bartholomew Fortuno brings alive the curious world of P. T. Barnum's American Museum in 19th century New York, transforming in the process the freaks and prodigies into heart-breaking people.  Bryson is bedazzling, a real writer of extraordinary bravado."—Keith Donohue, author of Angels of Destruction and The Stolen Child

"Ellen Bryson is a truly gifted storyteller whose debut novel transports the reader through time and into history itself, into characters with strange bodies but all-too-human hearts. I was hooked by every act, all the way to the novel’s big reveal. Like Barnum’s museum, this book deserves a plethora of visitors looking for educational entertainment."—Cathy Day, author of The Circus in Winter

"I cannot remember another first novel as deftly written, as emotionally charged, as transporting as this one. Ellen Bryson's breathtaking debut makes us all believe anew in the power of love."—Ann Hood, author of The Knitting Circle

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.; 1 edition (June 22, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0805091920
  • ASIN: B0057DB3X8
  • Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1.2 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (61 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,509,269 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author


As a young girl, there were three things I wanted to do: dance, write, and be a monk. Why in the world I'd want to do things that take years of solitude, hard work, and living a life built on a financial quicksand is still beyond me, but I'm really lucky to have tried all three.

For over a decade, I eked out a living as a modern dancer in Cleveland, Boston, and New York. Still in my twenties, I was young enough not to care that I had to support myself waiting table, working as a temp, or in any other job to keep some kind of roof over my head.

Dancers, however, have a short shelf life, and after a certain age I knew I needed to do something else. So I applied and was accepted into Columbia University's General Studies program where, with the help of scholarships, I earned a degree in English and creative writing. During the summers, I sat meditation at a Buddhist retreat in Massachusetts, and managed to do two three-month silent retreats. By my third year, I seriously considered taking monastic vows.

But the world was too appealing, so I finished school, and then that old pesky "gotta-eat" thing bit at my heels again. As soon as I graduated, I took my first real job at the Adolph and Esther Gottlieb Foundation in Manhattan reviewing grants to mature painters and sculptors. What terrific work. Not part of my life triumvirate, perhaps, but the beginning of a career in philanthropy that lasted over a decade.

It was during this time that I met a Navy SEAL in one of my meditation retreats and married him. (This was way beyond luck.) Together, we started what I like to call our gypsy life. We left New York for San Diego, CA, Duluth, MN, and Manama, Bahrain in the Persian Gulf. Eventually, we settled in Washington, DC. There, I went to Johns Hopkins University in DC for an MA in creative writing, working slowly on what would eventually become my first novel.

Just after 9/11, my husband and I decided to do something new: We began to dance the tango. In a moment of inspired insanity, we left our jobs in DC, sold our apartment, and moved to Buenos Aires, Argentina, to dance. We stayed for three years, renovating an apartment, learning Spanish, and exploring. Tango, it turned out, provided limited pleasure, but writing was great, and living in a country where few spoke English changed my perspective forever. In the end, the controlled craziness of our own country proved more endearing than the uncontrollable craziness of another, and home we came.

We currently live in San Diego, but I suspect it won't last. We're already considering a move to Paris.



Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By C Wahlman VINE VOICE on October 11, 2010
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I should have loved this book: historical fiction about human oddities after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, pretty compelling idea. The intriguing premise of the novel, however, did not deliver.

Barthy was a little too self-righteous to feel any real connection to and his intrigue did not compell me to read. The other characters did not engage me early on. Overall the story started with mystery and promise, but after the first chapter there was very little that kept me reading (other than my own desire to finish and write this review).

Strange, this should have been so much better ... not recommended.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By A reader from California on April 24, 2011
Format: Hardcover
Overall, I liked the book, but did not love it. I thought it was very well written, and the characters and historical setting were interesting. However, I had two main issues with the book: Firstly, I found the main character, Bartholomew, not very likeable. He had his moments, but overall was self-indulgent and defensive even when treating other people badly. Secondly, the last two hundred pages were no different than the first one hundred pages. Not much more happened in terms of plot or character development. And the big surprise at the end: come on--anyone could have seen that coming a mile away. Given the potential of the setting and the characters, I would have liked to have seen something more dramatic. But overall, a good debut.
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12 of 16 people found the following review helpful By Alan L. Chase VINE VOICE on June 27, 2010
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Ellen Bryson's first novel is a "freaky" tour de force. When I read an early review that likened the book to "Like Water for Elephants," I knew that I had to read the book. I am a sucker for any well-written book about the circus or those who perform in circuses. That fact that I lived briefly in Bridgeport, CT that boasts it own P.T. Barnum Museum gave me even more incentive to read this fictionalized work about his famous New York City museum. Ironically, I am writing this review just a few days after the Bridgeport museum suffered serious damage in the recent Bridgeport tornado, echoing the destruction by fire of the New York City museum in July of 1865.

On the surface, this is a novel about the inner lives of the cast of freaks and oddities that Barnum put on display at his popular museum - and later in the circus that he ran. Narrated by Bartholomew Fortune, "the world's thinnest man," the novel is a deep exploration of the source of one's identity and the quest for freedom from those forces that would seek to interfere with truly becoming who one is meant to be. The theme of freedom emerges in many of the scenes in the book, and ties together many of the characters and the actions and dialogue that bind them together. Here is an excellent example of how the author treats the topic of freedom - its gifts and its pitfalls. In this example, caged birds represent the novel's characters in their individual pursuits of freedom - Fortuno;Iell,the enigmatic bearded lady who carries a secret known only to a few; Matina, the fat lady, the Strong Man, The Rubber Man, et al.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Terri J. Rice TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on June 2, 2010
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I remembered when I started reading Water for Elephants that the absolute last thing I thought I would want to read about was a circus. Water for Elephants proved me wrong. It was a fantastic book so when The Transformation of Bartholomew Fortuno came along I thought I should give it a go. The characters although freakish were boring. Their thoughts, words and actions were facile. The story began well enough but then just rambled on to its ho hum ending.

Having worked his way up in the freak show world from a traveling menagerie to the Barnum Museum, Bartholomew Fortuno feels certain his primary gift is not his freakishness... and his gift will soon be realized. As the thinnest man in the world, nothing good ever came from subjecting himself to the outside world. But those same people who recoiled in fright on the streets were willing to plunk their nickels down to gawk and stare at the circus. Able to eat only six green beans at a meal, he carefully cuts each into thirds and chews each bite twenty-five times. Next to him sits Martina, able to eat and eat and eat. Bartholomew's dearest friend is no other than the fattest woman in the world, Matina, a complex woman whose beginnings were as a second rate act on a riverboat show.

"Our uniqueness alone is enough to justify our special place in the world. But even more, our destiny insists we use our gifts to show others who they really are or show them what, in an ideal world, they could become. It may shock them at first, but, deep down, we open their eyes to greater possibilities."

Bartholomew's dearest friend, Matina, becomes jealous when the new act, the bearded lady, Iell, joins the show. Bartholomew is overcome, smitten with this woman and everyone wants to know, who she is, what her secret is.
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Format: Hardcover
The Transformation Of Barthlomew Fortuno takes the reader inside the lives of the men and women who made up P.T. Barnum's 'Curiosities'. Barthlomew is The Thinnest Man Alive; there is Martina the Fat Lady, Ricardo the Rubber Man, Emma and Alley the giants and many others. As the book opens, a new act has arrived; Iall, a gorgeous woman with flowing red hair and a flowing beard to match.

Barthlomew is instantly entranced. He is determined to win Iall's heart. But there are many obstacles in his way. Barnum is not interested in his acts falling in love, and furthermore, seems to be interested in Iall himself. Mrs. Barnum, who controls the pursestrings, is interested in moving Iall to a new location where her husband will not be tempted. Barthlomew must decide if he is willing to take on his employers, on whom he depends for his livelihood, in order to win his heart's desire.

This is a lovely book. There is enough historical detail to transport the reader back to New York City in the 1860's, and it all rings true. But the novel is about much more than just a nostalgic look backward. It forces the reader to think about the different types of control in each person's life. The acts are controlled by their physical characteristics and by the determination of others to make money from their differences. Some of the acts like Barthlomew and Martina have made themselves into curiosities by controlling themselves; in Barthlomew's case by controlling the small amount he eats and in Martina's by controlling the enormous amounts she consumes. There is the question about free will and how much an individual truly is in control of their own life. This book is recommended for all readers. Those who read it will ponder the questions raised long after the last page is finished. This is Bryson's debut novel, and readers will eagerly await her next one.
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