Sometimes when I am reading a novel, I find myself already writing the review and making comments on it in my head while I’m reading. I’m never sure if I’m doing the novel a disadvantage and preventing myself from enjoying it more, or if it happens because something about the novel isn’t quite clicking, therefore leading me already try to analyze what is not working. Basically, am I being overcritical because I am not enjoying it, or am I not enjoying it because I’m being overcritical?
Church of Marvels was definitely one of those novels for me. Maybe I was too tired when I was reading this to enjoy more complex prose but I feel like I missed a few things in the beginning because the way the sentences were structured weren’t entirely holding my attention. I had to flip back a few times to figure out who “she” was, especially when a scene involved a group of women, and at one point, she used someone’s name, then she mentioned a young woman, and I couldn’t tell if it was the same person or a new person. So as I said, it might have been me, but I think something about the style made it a bit more difficult to keep up/follow than was entirely necessary for the story being told.
I’m also not sure if Parry was trying to surprise the reader with shocking plot twists or if she was assuming readers might work things out based on a vague comment or clue here and there. I won’t say I guessed things per se but when one of the characters was described in the first chapter or two, I vaguely wondered something, only to find that my inkling was correct at the end of the novel. There were a few other points, where something made me have a passing thought of, “oh, I wonder if,” only to have it come up as a twist a few chapters later. On the one hand, it’s probably good that she built in clues so she couldn’t be accused of completely blindsiding the reader but I also got the impression that when she did her reveals they were supposed to be shocking while I reacted with a shrug.
Set in 1895, the novel begins with a prologue from the perspective of Belle Church, and then ends up flashing between the viewpoints of three different characters. Odile Church is Belle’s twin sister. She hasn’t seen her sister since shortly after their mother’s carnival/freak show in Coney Island burned down, killing their mother and some of their closest friends in the fire. Sylvan Threadgill is an orphan who finally found a family to live with, only to lose them to consumption. He now works as a night soil man when he discovers a discarded baby girl while cleaning up latrines. Finally, there is Alphie, wife to an undertaker, who has been falsely placed in a brutally run asylum for the mentally unfit. She is having some problems remembering what exactly happened the evening she was taken, but she hopes her husband will come save her. While there, she interacts with another young woman who doesn’t speak and desperately wants to escape as well.
The novel picked up for me in the second half but I still found it rather frustrating as a whole. Alphie and her view of her husband felt pretty delusional throughout the novel – it was pretty clear that the man was worthless. I also feel like the prologue took away some of the mystery since it reveals that Belle lost her tongue, and that she survives for quite a while without her tongue since people ask her sometimes if it was the result of a performance gone wrong. Basically, while the prologue was well written, it might have served the story and the suspense level more if it had simply started with Belle’s letter Odile, which is what inspires Odile to start looking for her sister to begin with. Instead, Parry chooses to frame the story with chapters from Belle’s perspective.
There is a lot of information in this one, and Parry obviously did some interesting research into turn of the century Manhattan that she incorporates. Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite feel like it connects, and that she added a few too many random details and backgrounds while also making the story seedier and darker than was really needed. I liked Sylvan but his whole fighting to make extra money story line felt so random. There was one specific character that starts as a potential villain before more context is revealed, and that is one person’s whose story I would have loved to see expanded on! I would have much rather read her story than Odile’s. Or Alphie’s (who ended up having an interesting story and an actual personality hidden behind the clueless trust in her husband and simpering wife bit; it just took way too long to be revealed).
So while the ending wasn’t as frustrating as the beginning, when it comes down to it, I felt some sympathy for a few of the characters but didn’t really connect to them, making it hard for me to care. Between the carnival of Coney Island, and the poverty and darkness of Manhattan, the book had potential to be interesting but instead felt like a bunch of quirky characters thrown together for flavor without adding up to an entirely cohesive whole – the plot made sense, lots of attention to detail but much that was unnecessary. It’s not a novel I regret reading, but it also isn’t one I would recommend or pass on. But it has a lot of five star reviews so you know, different strokes for different folks and maybe someone else will find more in this one than I did.