The Life She Was Given
Ellen Marie Wiseman
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A GREAT GROUP READS Selection of the Women’s National Book Association and National Reading Group Month
GOODREADS Best of the Month
From acclaimed author Ellen Marie Wiseman comes a vivid, daring novel about the devastating power of family secrets—beginning in the poignant, lurid world of a Depression-era traveling circus and coming full circle in the transformative 1950s.
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.
prose flows smoothly, allowing each moment of discovery to stand on its own
Blackwood Manor is the center point of the action for this dual-timeline story: set in both the 1930’’s and the 1950’s, the manor, the attic room and the struggle to find one’s place in the world all combine to build a story that is rich in gothic feel and surprising moments. Alternating points of view come with each chapter: we start with Lily’s story. Born an albino after her mother’s many miscarriages in the 1930’s: she was a prisoner in her own home: shut into a tiny attic room with no visitors save her mother. Purportedly to ‘keep her safe’, Lily’s mother is extreme and prone to words like monster and abomination when speaking with her, but juxtapose that with her fanaticism and religious fervor, and perhaps a touch of guilt or self-recrimination for bringing such a ‘different’ child into the world. To rid herself of the curse and burden, at ten, Lily is sold to a traveling circus to become a headliner in the freak show.
Fast forward twenty-ish years to meet Julia, now 18 and working in a restaurant after having left home years earlier. She’s never quite felt as if she was loved or fit in, and things are tough, including her falling in with an abusive man. She’s living hand to mouth, never certain that food will be on the table, or the rent will be paid when she is handed a chance at a way out. A private investigator found her to deliver some news: her mother is dead and Julia is now the owner of Blackwood Manor, her family home.
The story winds between these two – showing their own struggles with finding a place in the world to feel safe and loved, and their own issues with abusive or neglected pasts. Each new revelation from the girls brings a moment of pause: truly horrible situations yet they survived, and always looked for another day, another moment, a reason to hope. But the story quickly adds a third character, that of the manor house itself. Abandoned and aging, Julia’s discovery of a mystery and secret within its walls, the dank and removed attic room and her need to expose all of the darkness to the light and hopefully move forward keep the story engaging and intriguing, with a series of questions situations and answers that drop like petals from a flower.
There is a feel (and I say feel in the most general sense) that a reader will want to connect this to another title and say it’s like This or That – but those connections are the most basic (circuses, attics) and here is where I think Wiseman excels: her writing is evocative and laden with emotion. The prose flows smoothly, allowing each moment of discovery to stand on its own and be explored: from the character’s viewpoint and as a reader. You want to savor these moments as you are placing the pieces of the puzzle together: never quite certain just how moments will relate until the last pages. As an introduction to Wiseman’s work, this was a great one, and the ending here couldn’t have been more perfect.
I received an eArc copy of the title from the publisher via NetGalley for purpose of honest review. I was not compensated for this review: all conclusions are my own responsibility.
I liked the story a lot up until the very end. Why did a certain character get off free from their actions and nothing happened to them at all! It's like they did not suffer at all from their actions. Why did a certain character have the worst life ever?? Why did everything happen to them? I am so mad, and my night is ruined. I couldn't go to sleep and that's why I started writing this review. At least it's only a book.
The Life She Was Given
Absolutely gut wrenching. I could not put his book down. This story of Lilly,Julia, Mother,Father the circus all of it will be with me for a very long time.