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The Life Fantastic: A Novel in Three Acts Hardcover – January 1, 2017
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From School Library Journal
Gr 7–10Vaudeville in the early 1900s makes for a thought-provoking setting for a tale of racial discrimination with direct parallels to today's issues. Teresa, a white girl with a golden voice, yearns to be on stage, as her parents were in their youth. Her parents, however, think otherwise. Her father declares that the theater is no place for a woman, but Teresa secretly defies him, sings in a talent competition, and runs away to New York City to pursue a performing career. Unfortunately, her younger brother, Pascal, stows away on the train, too, forcing Teresa not only to navigate the big city but also to provide for him. Another performer, Maeve, takes both siblings under her wing, as does the tap dancer Pietro. Teresa's understanding of the inequality and discrimination faced by people of color in and out of show business solidifies when her relationship with Pietro, who is black, threatens them both. The novel's sections, interspersed with passages written as lyrics and in a play-script style, don't always feel well integrated. Yes, the book is set on the vaudeville stage, but here the plot and characters are strong enough to carry that theme through without the distracting narrative devices. VERDICT Historical fiction, racial discrimination, a budding love story, and youthful characters make this a fine additional purchase for libraries with a large historical fiction fan base.—Lisa Ehrle, Falcon Creek Middle School, CO
"Vaudeville in the early 1900s makes for a thought-provoking setting for a tale of racial discrimination with direct parallels to today's issues.... The plot and characters are strong enough to carry that theme.... Historical fiction, racial discrimination, a budding love story, and youthful characters make this a fine additional purchase for libraries." --School Library Journal
"Raised on the road with vaudevillian parents and gifted with a golden voice, young Teresa LeClair sets out to 'shoot for the stars--or die trying' in Ketchum's newest historical novel. A jam-packed ride through early-20th-century performance culture." --Kirkus Reviews
As seen in the Publishers Weekly African-American Titles for Young Readers feature
"The Life Fantastic provides a fascinating window into the 1900s New York vaudeville scene, while examining the complexities of family support and expectations, as well as burgeoning black activism ... .Ketchum fits it together seamlessly and entertainingly. Her love of vaudeville shines through Teresa and her descriptions of 1913 Broadway, but she does not ignore the built-in limitations placed on people of color." (VOYA Magazine)
“Ketchum weaves a gripping story of racial discrimination in the performing arts … .Ketchum paints a vivid portrait of the difficult life of a performer and the indignities and prejudice endured by artists of color … .Lovers of theater and history will find a great deal to sink their teeth into.” (Publishers Weekly)
“Ketchum’s new read stars a teen whose beautiful voice takes her out of her family home to the great New York City. Filled with young dreams and the realities of racial discrimination, it’s a story that’s as relevant today as ever.” (Brit + Co)
“Liza Ketchum creates a story as vibrant as the era itself … perhaps the greatest strength of the story is the historical accuracy tangible in the novel. Ketchum manages to capture the unique flavor and tone of the era of Vaudeville --- the bond of shared dreams and challenges that connected performers as a family. a fun and quick read for younger teens.” (Teenreads)
“Provides much fodder for discussing race relations and the power of song.” (Booklist)
“This was a unique, behind-the-scenes look at the vaudeville circuit … .I love a good historical read, and I can’t advocate enough for these types of books that combine fiction and history in positive ways … to be required reading in our schools. Factual history books are important, sure, but if you can find a realistic character to empathize with … I think you’re going to be a more well-rounded person for it. Ketchum brought the 1910s NYC to life, using real songs and places to bring an air of authenticity to the novel.” (Forever Young Adult)
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I’ll cut to the chase: the synopsis doesn’t exactly describe the plot accurately. The way it describes this book makes it seem like a forbidden romance in a historical fiction, but it’s not like that at all.
What I liked about the plot: It’s all about a girl following her dreams. Who doesn’t like a story about that? Teresa just wants to make it big in Vaudeville and moves to New York City to try to make that happen. It follows her hurdles and her triumphs and shows that sometimes it’s not always that easy to make it.
However, sometimes it was that easy for Teresa. Some of the things that happen are very convenient. She runs into the right people at the right time in the span of just a week or two. It’s a more unrealistic look at show business (though, I’m sure there are people who had this happen to them). This book could have benefited from just a bit of a longer timeline and a few more struggles for Teresa.
Teresa is the main character. She’s young, at 15-years-old, a bit naïve and trusting (but again, she runs into the right people). There isn’t much to dislike or like about her because she is just the typical character who’s trying to do what makes them happy. It aids the story, but I didn’t feel a great connection to her character.
The supporting cast are all great additions. Maeve is a girl friend to Teresa (bonus points for girl friendship) and she treats her right. It’s a positive relationship, so that’s always good. Pietro and Mr. Jones are the black father-son dancers that Teresa also befriends. Teresa learns a lot about race during her encounters with them. However, as stated earlier, Pietro is supposed to be her romantic interest, yet there was very little to no romance in this at all.
I adore Ketchum’s writing. She is very descriptive but in a way that gives you just enough while leaving some to your imagination. Her writing is very easy to read and flows perfectly. Also, the structure of this novel is unique in that it really is a book told in Three Acts. Each section of the book is divided by a playscript (that are only a few pages long) but I thought they all added a bit of connection and emotion to Teresa’s character.
Also, there’s singing and plenty of musical talks. If you’re a fan of music, you’ll like this!
Where I think the writing could improve is actually with the dialogue. While Ketchum writes beautifully elsewhere, sometimes the dialogue was lacking in emotion – though it isn’t really enough for me to dislike the writing as a whole.
This isn’t a hugely diverse book, but a few things are worth mentioning.
This is a very historically accurate novel. The author’s note and resources at the end are worth checking out because of the education within them. Ketchum clearly did her research and because of that, there are some accurate portrayals of how blacks were treated in 1913 in everyday life and in Vaudeville. Pietro and his father continually get turned away at hotels, questioned for talking to Teresa and Maeve, and are forced to wear blackface during their performances. With that said, I like how Ketchum wrote both of them. Pietro has dreams of his own – he strives for education and admired Du Bois. He’s not a stereotype that other books use.
Another thing worth mentioning is that Teresa is a “thicker” character. However, it’s not clear what her exact body type is. Personally, this is something I enjoyed. There were subtle mentions of her weight or how busty she was, but it wasn’t a plot device of the book – it was just her. This is a positive, in my opinion.
I thoroughly enjoyed this story. Despite that fact that Teresa runs into a lot of conveniences, the book still gets its point across in a beautiful way. I thought it was fun to follow Teresa through her auditions, performances, and ~some~ hurdles. Ketchum writes beautifully, it’s very descriptive and puts you right there in Vaudeville. The historical accuracy is something I loved the most in that I learned a few things about the early 1900’s just by reading this book. So, if you’re a fan of historical fiction – or even music/performing – I’d recommend this one. Though, FYI, I wouldn’t pick this one up if you think it will have an interracial romance.
Born into a Vaudeville family, Teresa’s parents have since fallen out of the performing life. Now, entering her teenage years, Teresa longs to experience the thrill of singing on the road. However, her father has other plans, despite her obvious talent. Determined not to allow her to follow in their footsteps, Teresa’s parents refuse to let her anywhere near a performance venue, intending for her to find a steady job at one of the nearby businesses. Unable and unwilling to accept this stifling future, and feeling the pull of a life on the road, Teresa runs away to New York to try and prove herself on the Vaudeville stage.
The only problems? She finds herself with an unexpected stowaway and it turns out that becoming a star is harder than she ever imagined. Along the way she meets many different actors, including Maeve, her “mentor” of sorts and close friend, and Pietro Jones and his father, both talented Vaudeville dancers. African American Pietro exposes Teresa to the harsh racial prejudices of the early 1900s and makes her question social norms as she works to prove herself onstage and find her place in society.
Overall, THE LIFE FANTASTIC is a fairly quick historical read that lends itself to younger readers. While racial prejudice is an issue that permeates the entire story in a thought-provoking way, the other conflicts that Teresa deals with, both internal and external, are often “glossed over” --- resolved quickly to keep the tone of the book lighter in a way that appeals more to younger teens. Also, despite her age of 15, Teresa's actions and thoughts make her seem slightly younger than her given age, another reason why the novel may not resonate with older teens, but rather younger ones. The only real weakness of the book was its occasional lack of elaboration --- it feels at times as if scenes and characters are not always described as well as they could be, keeping the reader from fully immersing in the story.
For example, the book might have benefited from more development at the beginning of the novel to help the reader bond with Teresa, the main character --- without this connection, Teresa’s struggles and accomplishments do not resonate as much with the reader. However, Liza Ketchum creates a story as vibrant as the era itself, and the performers’ continual effort to find new jobs and prove themselves to every new audience in the hopes of one day finding stardom gives the book an exciting flavor --- there is always something to be done, somewhere to go, something to dream of, that propels the characters forward.
But perhaps the greatest strength of the story is the historical accuracy tangible in the novel. The language and the action of THE LIFE FANTASTIC proves that the author did her research: more than this, though, Ketchum manages to capture the unique flavor and tone of the era of Vaudeville --- the bond of shared dreams and challenges that connected performers as a family. The excitement of the era carries into the novel, making THE LIFE FANTASTIC a fun and quick read for younger teens.
Reviewed by Rachel R., Teen Board Member