The Transformation of Bartholomew Fortuno takes the reader inside the lives of the men and women who made up P.T. Barnum's 'Curiosities.' Barthlomew is The Thinnest Man Alive; there
are Martina the Fat Lady, Ricardo the Rubber Man, Emma and Alley the giants, and
many others. As the book opens, a new act has arrived: Iall, a gorgeous woman with flowing red hair and a flowing beard to match.
Barthlomew is instantly entranced. He is determined to win Iall's heart,
but there are many obstacles in his way. Barnum is not interested in his acts falling in love and, furthermore, seems to be interested in Iall himself. Mrs. Barnum, who controls the purse strings, is interested in moving Iall to a new location where her husband will not be tempted. Barthlomew must decide if he is willing to take on his employers, on whom he depends for his livelihood, in order to win his heart's desire.
This is a lovely book with enough historical detail to transport the reader back to New York City in the 1860s, and it all rings true. But the novel is about much more than just a nostalgic look backward. It forces the reader to think about the different types of control in each person's life. The acts are controlled by their physical characteristics and by the determination of others to make money from their differences. Some of the acts, like Barthlomew and Martina, have made themselves into curiosities by controlling themselves--Barthlomew by controlling the small amount he eats, and Martina by controlling the enormous amounts she consumes. There is the question about free will and how much an individual truly is in control of their own life.
The Transformation of Bartholomew Fortuno is recommended for all readers. Those who read it will ponder the questions raised long after the last page is finished. This is Bryson's debut novel, and readers will eagerly await her next one.