My rating: 4 of 5 stars
New York City in the beginning of the 20th c. was a place of robber barons and freaks, showmen and shysters, crooks and ordinary people struggling to survive. Coney Island was in its infancy but already an escape from a stifling city, where people paid pennies to be entertained by the different and frightening, whether it was a thrill ride or a woman born without arms.
The protagonists, Eddie and Coralie, have lives that intersect in unexpected ways, but the reader knows they're destined to be entangled together. Her "deformity" causes her to live a life of isolation and dwell in her own world, while his struggle to survive leads him to make choices that aren't always legal, but are true to his own ethical code. They belong in their time and place, a NYC of opportunity and freakshows.
One can read about the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire and the horrors of it, but to see it described in such searing detail brings alive a time and place where workers were considered material easily replaced, and their lives worth little compared to profit. It's a situation resonating with us today and during this political season.
This is not a fast read. The novel proceeds at a slow and deliberate pace, with a great deal of moving back and forth in timelines. It's not a bad technique, but it won't appeal to all readers. I was much more disturbed by POV shifts in a single paragraph. But if you stick with it, there's a reward at the end as secrets are revealed and lives changed in a single night of disaster and hope.
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