In brief: Rose wants to be an architect, but it’s not what women do in 1897 New York City. Now that the family’s fortunes are lost, she must decide whether to follow her dreams or save the family…
The good: The elephants add another layer to the story.
The not-so-good: A little too detailed at times.
Why I chose it: Thanks to Penguin for the copy.
Setting: New York City
Rating: 7 out of 10
The Eighth Wonder is a historical novel jam-packed full of drama, societal issues and elephants. Yes, it may seem like an odd combination but it all works well in this debut novel.
The story focuses on Rose, the only daughter of a family whose fortunes are crumbling in late 19th century New York. Rose’s mother is a desperate social climber, disappointed in her own choice of husband and eager to turn the family’s fortunes – both social and monetary – around by marrying Rose off. Neither Rose nor her father are keen on that as Rose desperately wants to be an architect herself, rather than her father’s assistant. Rose is also keen on helping out social causes and the poor, with no time to spare. The family’s fortunes take a grave turn for the worse and the blame is pointed at Rose, who is pressured to marry into the rich of New York and forget her dreams of being an independent woman. Meanwhile, a young man with a very different upbringing who crossed paths with Rose years ago lives in Coney Island with an elephant, lion and other animals. Ethan is not popular with the locals, but through various connections keeps coming into contact with Rose. As Ethan’s fortunes appear to be on the rise, he engages Rose’s help only to find that New York can be a very cruel place…
There is a lot going on in The Eighth Wonder. It’s not just the story of Rose trying to shake of the shackles of society’s expectations, but somewhat of a social commentary on the plight of workers, circus animals and those who don’t fit into society. Mostly, these parts mesh together well, but occasionally I felt that the breadth of issues to tackle were too wide without enough page time devoted to each. For example, Chet Randall who catches Rose’s eye has numerous underworld dealings, but it isn’t detailed in the text. I also felt more detail could have been given to Chet’s employees sewing clothes, such as their working conditions and the ramifications of such an unsafe environment. However, I really liked the characters of Rose and Ethan. They are both obviously flawed, but honest and determined to make their way in the future by holding on to their principles. Rose’s mother and Chet are characters who were written to be disliked, and this was definitely achieved. Edith is positively odious with her plotting and planning to use Rose as a social tool while Chet is equal parts slimeball and creepy.
The Eighth Wonder is packed full of details in the writing, which was occasionally too much for me. I would have liked a bit less description and more action in the early parts of the novel, but the second half is definitely full of action. It’s a solid debut, meticulously researched and with an inventive plot.