The Transformation of Bartholomew Fortuno, by Ellen Bryson
Though he didn't say "there's a sucker born every minute", P.T. Barnum might as well have done. Circus founder, freak show impresario, theatrical producer, politician, he made a livelihood from the gullibility of the American public. Bryson's novel is set in his New York City Museum, and is the story of Bartholomew Fortuno, the fictional "thinnest man in the world".
Fortuno believes that his body and the oddities of the other "Curiosities" are special gifts, "emphasizing different aspects of human beings". Into his world comes a new act, Iell the Bearded Woman. She is treated differently from the other prodigies, not living in the Museum with the rest, and seems to have some connection with Barnum not shared by her colleagues. Fortuno is intrigued, an intrigue heightened by Barnum sending him on a mysterious errand to fetch a packet for Iell from a Chinatown apothecary, who also gives Fortuno a root that will give him "what his heart wants". And so his transformation, on many levels, begins.
I struggled to get through this book. The characters never came alive for me. Though we gradually learn a good deal about Fortuno, where he comes from, what his life has been, he isn't, at bottom, a very interesting person. And we don't learn much about anyone else. The story itself drags, and is a slender reed on which to hang a novel, a novel that Bryson's writing isn't compelling enough to save.