If you’ve read any of my blogs before, you’ll probably have guessed I love reading historical books, whether it’s the classics or modern books that take a look back in history. I’m especially interested in books that examine a unique time and place in history. This is the reasoning behind why I got this book to begin with.
Released on July 25th, 2017 (a little over two months ago from my posting of this review), this tells that story of two girls in two different eras—one in the 1930s and the other in the 1950s. In 1931, Lilly Blackwood, an albino who has been locked up her entire life by her parents, is sold by her mother to a circus as a freak. In 1956, Julia Blackwood comes back to Blackwood manor after her mother dies and leaves her the estate. Their two stories intertwine as they both attempt to find happiness, in alternating chapters.
Before I start complaining about some of the issues I had with the book, let me just say that I really liked the majority of this story. It is clear the author did a lot of research on how circuses were run in the 1930s. The setting for Lily’s chapters is exceptional. I feel as if I’m in a circus with her, going through all the traumas and good times.
I really liked how the author did not create a depressing book. While it certainly portrays a lot of horrors Lily goes through, it isn’t entirely a downer. Like in real life, there are good times and bad times. The tone is exceptionally done as well, giving a melancholy, but hopeful feeling.
One minor thing that bothered me in the book was the amount of description. While I am not against this in general, a lot of the description seemed not to add anything to the story, especially during Julia’s chapters.
This brings me to Julia’s chapters, which were my biggest criticism. They are just a bit boring. Lily’s chapters moved forward in her life and we get to know a lot of characters and action around her. However, most of Julia’s chapters just describe her wandering her childhood home and thinking. Not all of her chapters are boring, especially when other characters come into her life, such as Claude—the manor’s handyman—and Fletcher—the vet who takes care of the horses—but most of them just feel like they were placed in between Lily’s chapters to break them up. Again, I didn’t hate it all, but I just skimmed a lot of Julia’s chapters.
There were also a lot of characters in Lily’s chapters, especially the featured acts in the circus. While there were certain characters that stood out, like Merrick, Gloria, and Cole, most of the characters were really defined by one trait—like Viktor being obsessively loyal to Merrick (if you haven’t read the book, you won’t know any of these characters, but bear with me).
The last issue—and probably the biggest—was the ending. Again, I’ll get more into the details in my spoiler section, but the ending really felt contrived. Yes, life is horrible, but now everything is perfect and happy. I wish Julia had been more curious about learning what happened to Lily and to the circus, and yet she wasn’t. It just felt like a lot of characters’ endings were left unresolved.
Now, unto the spoilers.
Spoilers Ahead!!! (You have been warned)
I really liked the links between Lily’s and Julia’s chapters concerning their connection with animals. This parallel, especially in the end, is brilliant. Lily relates to the elephants in the zoo, especially one elephant named Pepper. When Pepper’s child is taken from her near the end, the elephant kills the man who originally bought Lily from her mother—Merrick (he’s a douchebag, and nobody will miss him). Because of this, Pepper is killed in public, and Lily’s attempts to save her causes Lily to suffer an accident and be paralyzed from the waist down.
Likewise, Julia connects with the horses on her family farm, especially one named Bonnie Blue. When her Claude takes away Bonnie Blue’s filly, Julia protests and saves the creature, rejoining the family. In a sense, Julia’s story was the good parallel to Lily’s, which I really enjoyed.
Like I said earlier, Julia’s chapters were a bit boring because they didn’t really progress the story—say for the scenes with the horses. When she discovered things about her father keeping newspaper clippings of Lily, I had hoped she would do more digging, but all her research was confined to the house, not outside. She never tried to track down what happened to Cole, as Claude merely says the circus told Lily’s father that he died. And Julia seems to have no interest in learning what happened to Cole, even after she discovers in the end that he was indeed her father.
Now we get to the ending (and the biggest spoilers of the book). First, the house just happens to catch on fire, engulfing all of the Blackwood’s horrible secrets. While, I don’t hate this, it does feel a little bit clichéd. Oh, the horrible house filled with secrets is burned down. Where have I heard of that before? Classics like Jane Eyre, The Woman in White, Rebecca, and many more have employed a similar ending. Again, I don’t hate this tactic; it just felt a little convenient.
One thing I did really like about the ending what the Lily’s end was felt uncertain. After Julia discovered Lily was kept up in the attic, possibly for years, while Julia was playing downstairs, Julia has not knowledge of whether Lily was up there for months or years. It is truly a sad ending, as I was hoping that Lily would turn out alive and Julia would find her, and yet it is fitting when you think about the title. The Life She Was Given implies to me that her entire life was negative in some way, and not her choice. So, if Lily did end up happily ever after, it would not be the life she was given but instead her choice. While I hoped that Lily was still alive, it makes sense that she wouldn’t be.
Finally, we are on the last page of the book. While the ending does seem to be too chipper for the tone of the rest of the book, I do like generally how Wiseman decided to end it. I wished some of the melancholy touches were still in the last two pages, but I liked how Julia’s life was a better one than Lily could have hoped for her.
In life all we can hope for is to make our own decisions and live with our own mistakes, and become better people because of it. Lily was never really given the chance for this, and yet she still found love and happiness in so many places. She fell in love with Cole, she cared for the tattooed woman Gloria—who had treated her more like a daughter than her mother ever did—and she learned how much she loved animals. She held a beautiful daughter in her arms, only to have it pulled away from her before the daughter could even remember who her mother was.
And yet, because all she went through—both the good and the bad—she gave her daughter life. Without Lily, Julia would not have found happiness. Even in pain, there is such beauty in life. And for us who are lucky enough not to go through the trauma these two girls endured, we should be grateful.
I’ll admit, I was balling at the end of this book. Of course there were things I would have changed, but all-over I really enjoyed it. It’s not the best book I’ve ever read, but it’s probably one of my favorite books I’ve read from 2017 and I thoroughly recommend it.
If you are interested in reading this book, check it out on Amazon here.
If you’ve read it, how did you like it? If you haven’t, are you interested in reading it? Let me know your thoughts in the comments, make sure to follow my blog for more book and writing reviews, and, as always,
Best wishes on your life full of adventure,