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on April 13, 2011
It is the basic concept of Ellen Bryson's novel, "The Transformation of Bartholomew Fortuno," that stands this story on its ear. Most of us have probably known about Phineaus T. Barnum's famed "Museum" in New York City in the latter half of the 19th Century. The man who believed a fool was born every minute, did indeed gather together a huge grouping of world-acclaimed oddities, both man and animal, real and manufactured, which he displayed to make a fortune for many years in Manhattan. Author Bryson handles it all with the most delicate sensitivity and restraint, as though the characters involved were just like all others, like you and me.

Told from the point of view of Bartholomew Fortuno, the thinnest man in the world (6'8" tall and weighs 78 pounds), and his dearest friend, Matina, the fattest woman in the world, they even flirt with a relationship more intimate than best friends. Against that backdrop of theater, exhibits, persons viewed as tableau, dramatic readings, with and without music, and a host of animals, real and imagined, we also become acquainted with the eccentric ringmaster, P. T. Barnum and his even stronger wife.

One cannot help admiring the restraint of author Bryson who deftly handles descriptions of freakish individuals and events without once stepping over that mystical line that would have made the individuals and events comical. A major example of that might have been Bartholomew's falling love with a beautiful new member of the cast, Iell.

The following passage from the book illustrates the author's portrait of Bartholomew's attraction for this beautiful if unusual lady:

"It was kind of you to make this trip for me," Iell said as she led me across the blood red rug in the parlor. Silently I squeezed between the divans and the tea table in front of it. Iell cut a dramatic figure as she stood against the brocade drapery, her beard curled lightly at the ends, her dress some kind of oriental sarong. No hoopskirts for her, at least not in private. ... What was it about the woman that intrigued me so? It wasn't just the beard, it was so much else. She made me feel as if I were empty and full at the same time."

In another passage, author Bryson handles a sexual scene between the fattest woman and the thinnest man in the world with the same skill, never once yielding to caricature of the bearded beauty or the thinnest man's total enchantment with her.

Ellen Bryson is skilled, too, in creating scenes and using sometimes poetic language that cause us to stop and think, what a lovely way to say that, e.g., "When the sun finally broke the horizon, its radiance poured over the rooftops and then flowed down the museum like a river of gold." Nearly a flawless book for its handling of a difficult and unique group of characters, "The Transformation of Bartholomew Fortuno" is sometimes flawed by the use of contemporary colloquial expressions that break the imaginative trance, e.g. the use of the word "stonewalled" to describe resistance. Those occasions broke the spell and pulled me out of the historical moment.

Still, this is a book you won't want to miss, an author you'll want to follow.
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on July 4, 2015
The plot unfolds slowly and deliciously evoking a time and place that is both familiar and completely unfamiliar while eliciting empathy for Fortuno and his strange companions. Ms. Bryson gives us a beautiful and well told story of love and self discovery while tantalizing the reader and revealing some surprising details of the characters lives as the story unfolds. A special book, one I will keep on my bookshelf.
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on June 9, 2013
Tedious and long winded. never knew where the story was going and at some point didn't care. Glad to have reached the last page
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on February 23, 2011
Maybe I am naive but I was completely surprised by the ending of THE TRANSFORMATION OF BARTHOLOMEW FORTUNO.
I appreciated the verisimilitude. Set just after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln the novel offers a unique insight into the transformation of the country as well as its residents.

Enjoyed having PT Barnum as a character who was probably the ultimate character in real life.
Highly recommend this work. Look forward to Ellen Bryson's next endeavor.
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on July 15, 2010
Like many other reviewers, I was excited about this book after seeing the comparisons made to Geek Love (one of my all-time favorite novels) and Water for Elephants. The blurb on the back cover from Cathy Day (author of The Circus in Winter --- an incredible book) didn't hurt either. Unfortunately, I found it a bit of a chore to get through, which is surprising given the premise. The book is thin on plot (no pun intended I swear), which would be fine if it made up for it in character development. However, aside from their special "gifts," these "human curiosities" were not very interesting as characters. The suspense was weak and repetitive; Bartholomew visits Iell, argues with Matina, and gets in trouble with the Barnums --- rinse and repeat. The last 1/4 of the book definitely picked up but by then I was just as excited to be done with the book as I was to learn the secret of the "big reveal." Ironically, this book suffers from the very plight that the characters take such pride in avoiding -- it's just average.
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on July 18, 2010
Ellen Bryson transports us to New York in the days after the death of Abraham Lincoln; and we are dropped into the world of the curiosities in P.T. Barnum's Museum. Bartholomew Fortuno, our protagonist, is the thin man who's best friend and confidant is the fat woman. And, follow them and their colleagues through their daily routine in the museum and listen as they explore their lives. Do they have special "gifts" or are they just freaks to be gawked at?

Bit by bit, we watch Bartholomew unravel the real story of his life. Was it the strange root from the Chainman, or his fascination with the beautiful, bearded woman that started the process? In the end, the Museum has burned. And, many of the characters have changed and evolved. And, we the reader have taken a different view into the hidden lives of the people in the sideshow.

The Transformation of Bartholomew Fortuno is a fun, summertime read. I was immediately drawn into the book and its characters. And, as I neared the end of the book I could hardly stand to put it down.
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on June 27, 2010
There are several things about this book I really like.

First, I really enjoy historical fiction of a certain type. In particular I am a huge fan of George MacDonald Fraser's "Flashman" series, in which the author finds little mysteries in history, and creates plausible fictional explanations with the book's characters. This book does that. Not to the extent Fraser does it, but still, it's there, and I like it. It's obvious the author thoroughly researched the particulars of Mahnattan circa 1865, and the world of P.T. Barnum in particular, and put a lot of thought into how to construct a believable story within an historical framework. (And speaking of Flashman, the period in this book is a blank spot on the Flashman timeline, and in one scene I can't help but imagine Harry Flashman making a cameo appearance and tossing off, "There's a sucker born every minute." Flashman fans know exactly what I mean.)

Also, from the first page of the book I started easily imagining a movie. And not just any move, but a Tim Burton movie. Both the imagery and the atmosphere easily conjured up visions of some weird combination of "Batman" and "Edward Scissorhands". There are at least two dozen scenes in the book that had me imagining them on screen as I read them. To me this book begs to be made into that film.

Finally, I found it very sensuous. The smells, the sounds, the sights or mid-19th century Manhattan were there. But more interesting, the tension between Bartholomew Fortuna's not eating, and Matina's nonstop eating had me thinking about food and taste through almost the entire book. It made me wonder what it must be to pass food over the palate so infrequently. When Fortuna first nibbled the root, I could imagine a tongue so deprived experiencing something so new for the first time.

The characters made their mark and stayed with me. From time to time now I find myself looking at the world around me through Fortuna's eyes, and wondering how the people passing by see themselves, especially the people who don't fit the norms for height, weight, and other everyday features.

As a writer, I think the Ms. Bryson has great sensibilities. This is something that can't be taught or learned. Her technical skills will surely continue to develop, but she's a natural for the feel of a good story.
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on July 19, 2010
Perhaps if I hadn't come across the fabulous "Cirkus" by Patti Frazee and loved it as much as I did, this book would have done more for me. This seemed, sadly, like a poor and shallow version of it. I think the author has potential, but I wish she'd been more original.
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on August 4, 2010
The concept of the book is very interesting and is the reason I bought the book. However, it moves very very slowly. There is too much repitition of descriptions of the characters. Too much time is spent on details which add very little to the story and many of the small details are variations on descriptions already given. Some of the anicdoestes of and about New York city are interesting. However, the book never engaged me. I kept reading it as I thought and hoped that it would change pace or move forward at more than glacial speed. I would not recommend it.
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on October 8, 2010
The cast of characters, the place in time, an excellent revealing ending and well written add up to a great read.
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