08. July 2014 · Comments Off · Categories: Adult Books, Courtney, Historical Fiction

The Swan Gondola by Timothy Schaffert, read by Courtney, on 06/26/2014

In the fall of 1898, a young ventriloquist named Ferret Skeritt falls from the sky in a hot-air balloon and lands on the house of a pair of elderly sisters in rural Nebraska. He sustains a broken leg and a few other injuries, but nothing is as broken as his heart. Earlier in the year, Ferret was anticipating the beginning of the Omaha World’s Fair, much like the rest of the city. At the time, Omaha was a much smaller and rougher town. Ferret makes most of his living with his ventriloquist act, thanks in no small part to his elaborate puppet, Oscar. For extra change, Ferret offers his services as a letter writer, specializing primarily in love letters. One night, while hanging around the theater, Ferret briefly meets a young, beautiful actress named Cecily. They don’t even have a conversation, but Ferret is a man obsessed. He eventually tracks her down in the fair’s midway and they begin to fall in love. Things seem perfect for a time. Together, they explore the fair.
Enter Billy Wakefield, one of the wealthiest men in Omaha and one of the principal financiers of the fair. He takes notice of Ferret and Cecily, invites them to his fancy parties, attempts to buy Ferret’s puppet. At first, Ferret, blinded by the early onset of love, fails to notice Billy’s interest in Cecily. Later, as Cecily’s health begins to deteriorate, Wakefield intensifies his efforts, promising medications and the best doctors money can buy. Ferret isn’t sure what to believe, but he doesn’t trust Wakefield (though he does take advantage of the fact that Wakefield is willing to give him a large sum of money for his puppet, Oscar). Cecily, on the other hand, agrees to travel with Wakefield to “take the waters” at various hot springs. Ferret wallows in her absence, but naively believes she’ll recover.
The first 2/3rds of this book is fantastic. I’m an Omaha native and a bit of a history buff, so I recall visiting the local history museum as a kid and being captivated by images of the Omaha World’s Fair. When I heard about this book, I knew I wanted to read it for the historical elements, if nothing else. The details of the fair absolutely met (and probably exceeded) my expectations. I loved trying to imagine how the pavilion would have sparkled in the sun with its white paint, dusted with crushed glass. The titular swan gondolas floated upon a massive lagoon that stretched the length of the main pavilion. On the fringes were the midway; the seedier (and more intriguing) parts of the fair. As readers, we take this journey alongside Ferret. As the summer wears on, the fair begins to lose its luster, much like the love between Cecily and Ferret.
To get into my issues with the final 1/3rd of the book, I would have to spoil several plot points. Suffice it to say, the last portion reads like an extremely long epilogue that takes place in the winter after the fair. Things get convoluted and the pacing becomes inconsistent. A good deal of the last portion begins to weave in some “Wizard of Oz” references, but their inclusion doesn’t make as much sense in the context of the novel. I think that if this book had ended prior to the last section, it might have felt much more cohesive. Still, it’s a mesmerizing read with vivid detail that has hints of The Night Circus and Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s YA work.

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