Kitty Hayward, a young Englishwoman, travels to New York, with her mother, to join her brother. When they arrive, they learn that he has died, and not long after, her mother becomes ill. When Kitty returns to their hotel after being sent out to fetch some medicine, she’s told that no one named Hayward is registered at the hotel, and that no one on the staff knows who she or her mother are. Alone in a strange country, with only the clothes on her back, Kitty falls in with a con man who introduces her to the society of Unusuals of Coney Island, freaks, sideshow artists, entertainers and the like, and finds that, unlike the hotel staff, they are willing to help a young woman in distress. Of course it doesn’t hurt that whatever illness afflicted Kitty’s mother is spreading through the city, hitting Coney Island hard.
Upfront: I loved this book, just enjoyed the heck out of it. I gave it five stars on Goodreads as soon as I finished it, then fretted about that rating because I thought that I was putting myself in a position of having to defend my enthusiasm for a book which I thought was a bit didactic. However, as I discussed the book with The Housemate — a voracious reader herself — I realized that while Wood’s message did seem a bit anachronistic in context — her characters are diverse in terms of race, nationality, and gender/sexuality — she has actually given us a context which goes beyond that of time and place, a society of outsiders who understand what it is to be different at a bone-deep level. Because of this, her story is neither didactic nor anachronistic, but timeless in terms of how “different” people are forced to live in society.
I loved the characters, even the unlikeable ones. They’re well drawn, and fleshed out, and there are very few spear-carriers in the ensemble. In fact, Wood so deftly gives weight to all their stories that it’s difficult for me to pick out a protagonist. Kitty, whose dilemma starts the action, might well win by default, but only just. But the others all hold their own. However, if you’re looking for a narrative that is focused on the travails of a single person, don’t look here. I like this kind of ensemble cast, others will not.
Was there a mystery? Yes. A couple, actually. Was there action? Yes, some, though not breakneck. Romance? Oh yes, again a couple, each of which is, in its own way, transgressive. And because of this, and because of the themes of social justice and awareness, if you’re an enemy of diversity, don’t bother with it, or in fact with me.
Bottom line: I no longer feel I need to defend my rating. I loved it, I think it’s a good book. Period.