If there is one book that you should read this summer, it should be The Life She Was Given by Ellen Marie Wisemen. Filled with mystery, drama, unexpected plot twists, hope, and heartwarming moments of unconditional love this novel is sure to please lovers of historical fiction, family dramas, and mysteries alike.
Title: The Life She Was Given
Author: Ellen Marie Wiseman
Publisher: Kensington Publication Corporation
Expected Publication Date: July 25, 2017
Genre: Fiction, Literary Fiction, Historical Fiction
Themes: Family, Sense of Self, Defiance, Discovery, Circus
Features: Author Q & A, Book Club Question Guide
My Rating: 5/ 5
On a summer evening in 1931, Lilly Blackwood glimpses circus lights from the grimy window of her attic bedroom. Lilly isn’t allowed to explore the meadows around Blackwood Manor. She’s never even ventured beyond her narrow room. Momma insists it’s for Lilly’s own protection, that people would be afraid if they saw her. But on this unforgettable night, Lilly is taken outside for the first time–and sold to the circus sideshow.
More than two decades later, nineteen-year-old Julia Blackwood has inherited her parents’ estate and horse farm. For Julia, home was an unhappy place full of strict rules and forbidden rooms, and she hopes that returning might erase those painful memories. Instead, she becomes immersed in a mystery involving a hidden attic room and photos of circus scenes featuring a striking young girl.
At first, The Barlow Brothers’ Circus is just another prison for Lilly. But in this rag-tag, sometimes brutal world, Lilly discovers strength, friendship, and a rare affinity for animals. Soon, thanks to elephants Pepper and JoJo and their handler, Cole, Lilly is no longer a sideshow spectacle but the circus’s biggest attraction. . .until tragedy and cruelty collide. It will fall to Julia to learn the truth about Lilly’s fate and her family’s shocking betrayal, and find a way to make Blackwood Manor into a place of healing at last.
Moving between Julia and Lilly’s stories, Ellen Marie Wiseman portrays two extraordinary, very different women in a novel that, while tender and heartbreaking, offers moments of joy and indomitable hope.
When the publisher and Net Galley granted my wish to review this book, the timing was almost perfect. That is, my wish was granted on the day that the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus staged their final show in New York. So when I started reading The Life She Was Given I was already emotionally raw and nostalgic, which meant that this book got me right in the feels and then refused to let go.
The Life She Was Given is beautifully written, with the narration alternating between Lily in the 1930s and Julia in the 1950s. The pacing is quick, and those moments where context is being provided and character development is taking pace feel natural and not at all forced. The result is that The Life She Was Given has a beautiful balance between being a plot-driven and character-driven. Additionally, the descriptions of circus life are vivid and imaginative, and the depth of the feelings and mystery that surround Blackwood Manor are entirely captivating.
The depth of Wiseman’s research shines through as well, and I really appreciated the acknowledgement of some of her more important sources. As someone who spends a great deal of time educating others on Information Literacy and how to properly reference sources, to see this included in a work of fiction makes my heart go pitter-patter. Not only that, the truthfulness and factual basis of many of the big moments throughout the text – Lily being sold to the circus, the elephant execution, and the circus traditions and superstitions – means that these moments are entirely believable and easy to get wrapped up in.
I want so badly discuss those moments that absolutely ripped my heart out, but have to refrain as I don’t want to be a spoiler! All I can say is this book comes with the warning of read with tissues – especially the end. Holy crap, I never saw it coming. If you guessed it you must be psychic, or maybe I’m just too nice, but the depravity of some people never ceases to amaze me.
Would a recommend this book? An astounding YES! I can’t wait for this book to come out in July as there are so many people that I want to give it to. It is beautiful, emotionally demanding, heartbreaking, and shocking in the moments where you least expect it. The Life She Was Given is an absolute must-read!
If anyone is interested, Ringling’s final live performance is included below. It might be two hours, but it was an epic end to an institution older than hockey and baseball.
Many thanks to Ellen Marie Wiseman and the Kensington Publication Corporation for providing an advanced copy for review via Net Galley.