Reading the synopsis and hearing the buzz surrounding Paddy O’Reilly’s The Wonders (February 2015) immediately intrigued me. This character-driven novel is about a troupe of quirky characters with bizarre body alterations who become international sensations and travel the world for all to see their curiosities. As the back cover synopsis says, it’s a “twenty-first-century circus act.” Some of my favorite novels either take place in or are about a circus; something about the mysticism, the energy, and the awe of it all makes for a great novel setting.
The Wonders opens with Leon Hyland dead at his office. This is the first of many times his weak heart stops beating but medical interventions bring him back to life. Later, a failed heart transplant leads him to finally make the decision to do something illegal and groundbreaking—an engineer and surgeon team up to give him a one-of-a-kind metal heart. Following this transplant, Leon lives a lonely hermit life until word spreads about his heart and an American entrepreneur named Rhona offers him a deal he can’t refuse.
Leon becomes the third and final addition to Rhona’s troupe of traveling performers. When he arrives at Rhona’s house in Vermont, Overington, he meets Kathryn, the attractive Irish woman whose entire body is covered in curly wool, and Christos, the Greek artist who underwent extreme body modification to give himself wings.
One of the things I like most about this novel is that it is not so much a story about the fame of The Wonders but a story of each person’s life history. The reader learns Rhona was born into a circus family and lived on its grounds until it closed down and she was sent to boarding school. Kathryn grew up in the projects in Dublin, surrounded by drugs, gangs, and crime. Christos came from a large family with hidden skeletons. Leon vanished from his family in order to receive his clockwork heart.
At its core, The Wonders is a reflection on humanity. For example, Leon has suffered much because of his physically weak heart and suffered even more to get his metal heart. Along his journey to stardom he realizes everyone has burdens they keep. In this sense, everyone is a freak of nature. Just like him. I really enjoyed how the author tied these deeper themes into an already strong story line. This book would be perfect for book clubs! It would make for some great discussions.
Perhaps one of the most discussed parts would be the last quarter of the novel. Here The Wonders takes an unexpected turn. This twist could have played out several ways but it didn’t turn out as I hoped. In fact, the author took the story to a place I didn’t expect it to go and I enjoyed the novel even more so for it.
The Wonders is an incredible story about love, acceptance, and embracing ones differences. I highly recommend it to both individuals and book discussion groups.
Reviewed by Libby Bridges
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