At the start of The Swan Gondola, Timothy Schaffert’s enchanting new historical novel, two elderly spinster sisters discover a man in their front yard who has fallen from the sky (or from a hot air balloon, at least). The man in question is Ferret Skerritt, a ventriloquist turned star-crossed lover with an incredible tale to tell.
The story-within-a-story begins several months earlier, in the spring of 1898, at the opening of the Omaha World’s Fair. Ferret, who rolls with a Fellini-like crew of freaks and circus performers, becomes enchanted by Cecily, a beautiful member of a traveling horror troupe. (She plays Marie Antoinette and nightly has her head chopped off.) Despite a rocky start, the two quickly fall in love, and their relationship blossoms amid the magic and mysteries of the fair.But as with all too-good-to-be-true romances, a threat looms. Here, it’s in the form of William Wakefield, an older Fair investor who has an eye on Ferret’s dummy, Oscar—not to mention Cecily herself.
Schaffert clearly did a tremendous amount of research for this book, and he’s at his best when cleaving to historical detail and quirky fact. The uncanny automatons cackle with life; the late-night séances are chill-inducing; and the sinking of the USS Maine is on everyone’s mind. But Schaffert’s period authenticity is also literary in nature. He’s clearly a fan of L. Frank Baum, and Wizard of Oz references are plentiful, though at times heavy-handed.
The Swan Gondola will no doubt garner comparisons to Water for Elephants and The Night Circus, and fans of such historical romances will not be disappointed. There’s plenty of magic to go around in this good, old-fashioned love story.
Read our Q&A with Timothy Schaffert about The Swan Gondola.