Church of Marvels by Leslie Parry

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Illinois Reads is an initiative by the Illinois Reading Council to encourage readers of all ages to try out books by Illinois authors.  Contrary to popular belief, Illinois does have some positives.  We have amazing state parks-not necessarily well funded, but beautiful, you can experience all four seasons within a day, and we have great authors.  Leslie Parry is one of them. 

I typically spend most of my time reading through the children's selection of the Illinois Reads list.  I mean, there's a lot of books to get through and I do have to plan the events that go along with the books for the Library.  But this book from the Adult list looked too good to pass up.  It's amazing! It's completely bananas!  It's also completely engrossing and beautifully written.  There are so many twists that spoilers are very difficult to avoid.  

Odile and Bella Church are twin sisters raised amongst the lights and noise of the circus.  Surrounded by colorful characters, the talented twins grow up to be strong and independent young women until tragedy destroys their family. 

Sylvan was found as a small child, alone and ill in a cellar.  Raised by his rescuers, he faces loss and struggle throughout his early life.  Now as a young man, he finds an infant in a privy.  Barely alive, the baby stirs in Sylvan a sense of duty and protectiveness that he didn't know he had. 

Alphie, a young woman in a strained marriage, wakes up confused and scared in a mental asylum.  Thinking it has to be her overbearing mother-in-law, she waits for her husband to come rescue her.  While at the asylum, she meets a beautiful but extraordinary young woman who will be vital to her continued survival.  

The characters were so well written-each one with a story that is both tragic and inspiring in some way.   Odile and Bella grew up as performers in The Church of Marvels, a Coney Island sideshow that is owned by their mother.  Surrounded by performers, lions, and thrill-seeking crowds, their world is turned upside down after a tragic fire.  When Bella leaves shortly after learning of their mother's death, Odile firmly believes she'll return home soon.  But months go by and there is no word from Bella.  Using what little clues Bella left behind, Odile meets Sylvan, a young man who is also looking for her sister.  After learning her sister may have had a child, Odile becomes even more intent on finding her sister. 

Meanwhile, Alphie has worked hard to survive on the streets of NYC.  Once she marries her soul mate, she believes her life can only become better.  But her oppressive mother-in-law has other plans for the woman who is definitely not good enough for her son.   Snide comments about her choice in clothing, food, and a lack of a first born child make Alphie's newlywed days very grim.  It's after Alphie hatches a plot to give her mother-in-law a grandchild, that Alphie's life becomes even more unbearable. 

There are so many spoilers in this book that it's hard to discuss without ruining the ending.   This book was both absolutely amazing and bizarre.  How the author was able to weave the different story lines together to create this novel is beyond me.  Each situation the characters find themselves in becomes more complex and fantastic but still manages to remain completely plausible.  Highly enjoyable and an incredible read.  Definitely recommend! 

Church of Marvels: A Novel
By Leslie Parry