The Swan Gondola
One wonders if the American publishing industry is trying to saturate the market with novels about circuses and carnival troupes in an attempt to introduce the genre to all tastes. 2011’s THE NIGHT CIRCUS is an impish fantasia for fans of surrealism. 2007’s WATER FOR ELEPHANTS, a novel about a veterinarian who becomes animal doctor to the Most Spectacular Show on Earth, is more romantic. For those who prefer darker fare, there’s 1984’s GEEK LOVE, Katherine Dunn’s story of freaks and geeks intent on breeding a race of genetically altered children.
THE SWAN GONDOLA, Timothy Schaffert’s new novel, is the anti-GEEK LOVE. It’s an old-fashioned and unabashedly romantic tale of hobo clowns and lion tamers, pickpockets and card sharks, dishonest peddlers of tonics and purveyors of naughty postcards. The goal of the book is to charm rather than challenge, and it attempts this through the simple story of a 25-year-old ventriloquist, the actress he falls in love with, and a wealthy Fair patron grieving over the death of his son.
It’s 1898, and the Omaha World’s Fair has just concluded. In a small Nebraska town, two elderly sisters are sitting in their cabin when the house starts to shake and items tumble from the shelves. The room is blanketed in darkness. They step outside and discover that a balloon made of yellow silk, a Civil War relic that was displayed at the Fair, has fallen on the house.
"[O]ne can’t deny that Schaffert knows how to build tension. THE SWAN GONDOLA’s romance and clever twists will keep many readers entertained."
The pilot is B. “Ferret” Skerritt, a ventriloquist who makes his living by writing “letters of proposal and promise and regret” on behalf of clients. The sisters bring Ferret home and nurse him back to health. During his stay, he tells them the circumstances that prompted him to steal the balloon. The first two thirds of the book is a flashback to Ferret’s arrival at the fairgrounds and his romance with a carnival performer named Cecily.
Cecily is an actor with the Silk and Sawdust Players. She portrays Marie Antoinette at the Fair’s Chamber of Horrors. Ferret is smitten. With the help of friends such as August Sweetbriar, a gay huckster who sells licorice-flavored tonics guaranteed to cure baldness, Ferret gets Cecily to meet him late at night at the swan gondola in the midway’s lagoon. He falls not only for Cecily but also for her baby daughter Doxie, whom Cecily keeps in the Fair’s live babies incubator exhibit when she isn’t hauling her around in a carpetbag.
One afternoon, a car pulls up alongside Ferret. The driver is William Wakefield, the wealthy President of the Board of the Fair. His little boy died in a railroad accident many years earlier. Wakefield offers to buy Oscar, Ferret’s dummy, but Ferret won’t sell. Later, Wakefield invites him and Cecily to a “Remember the Maine” masked ball to honor U.S. soldiers who have died in the Spanish-American War. Ferret and Cecily become regular guests at Wakefield’s mansion. It soon becomes clear that Wakefield sees in Ferret, Cecily and Doxie the family life he lost, and that he would do anything to regain.
The two biggest problems with THE SWAN GONDOLA are the romance between Ferret and Cecily and the sketchiness of the characters. We are never given a reason for Ferret’s attraction to Cecily other than that she’s pretty. This may be enough for some readers, but their relationship is generic rather than specific. Wakefield, too, is a stock character, a wealthy man with a burden to bear. The prose doesn’t help, either. When Wakefield offers to buy Oscar, Ferret fantasizes about the “bottle after bottle of the finest wines and box after box of chocolates” he can buy. Early in the novel, Ferret plucks the petals off a peony Cecily drops and makes a wish as he approaches her. Cecily flutters her lashes at least half a dozen times throughout the book, including twice in three pages at the start of a chapter. There’s a lot of winking.
THE SWAN GONDOLA also suffers from too much period detail, a problem common to many historical novels. Schaffert’s novel would have been stronger if he had cut some of the extraneous detail and spent more time developing his characters.
Despite all of this, Schaffert keeps the story moving. The hokeyness of the plot is wearying at times, but one can’t deny that Schaffert knows how to build tension. THE SWAN GONDOLA’s romance and clever twists will keep many readers entertained. Others, however, may find the plot frustratingly thin and the book lacking in enchantment.
Reviewed by Michael Magras on February 14, 2014