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Things Are Seldom What They Seem
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.