Title: The Eighth Wonder
Author: Tania Farrelly
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: Penguin Random House/Michael Joseph
Published: 2nd July 2021
Synopsis: The Suffragette meets The Greatest Showman in this story ofpassion and courage, as a young feminist fights against the rules of society to find her place in the world.
New York, 1897. The richest city in the world.
Beautiful, young and privileged, Rose Kingsbury Smith is expected to play by the strict rules of social etiquette, to forfeit all career aspirations and to marry a man of good means. But she has a quietly rebellious streak and is determined to make her own mark on Manhattan’s growing skyline. When the theft of a precious heirloom plunges the Kingsbury Smiths into financial ruin, Rose becomes her family’s most tradeable asset. She finds herself fighting for her independence and championing the ideal of equality for women everywhere.
Enigmatic Ethan Salt’s inglorious circus days are behind him. He lives a quiet life on Coney Island with his beloved elephant Daisy and is devoted to saving animals who’ve been brutalised by show business. As he struggles to raise funds for his menagerie, he fears he will never build the sanctuary of his dreams … until a chance encounter with a promising young architect changes his life forever.
Just when Rose is on the verge of seeing her persistence pay off, the ghosts of her past threaten to destroy everything she holds dear. In the face of heartbreaking prejudice and betrayal, she must learn to harness her greatest wonder within.
From Fifth Avenue mansions to Lower East Side tenements and the carnivals of Coney Island, The Eighth Wonder explores the brilliance and brutality of one of the world’s most progressive eras and celebrates the visionaries who dare to rebel.
Rose Kingsbury Smith is the daughter of rich parents, the elite of New York. Her mother is determined for her daughter to fit into society and the societal expectations of what everyone thinks a woman should be and what she should do. Yet Rose has other ideas – she wants to be an architect like her father. Forced into a compromise, where she must play by her mother’s rules – and even so far that wearing a corset can and does endanger her health, Rose finds herself at a party where she’s been told she will make a good match and marry well, so she can save the family from the poverty they are slowly descending into.
Yet after she attends a party, a family heirloom goes missing, and the pressure for Rose to conform to expectations and marry well becomes the only goal Edith, her mother, can see. Coerced into a relationship with Chet Randall, Rose confides her desires to her friend, artist Jack Billings, and soon comes into contact with Ethan Salt, whose talent with animals and desire to save them, and work with the A.S.P.C.A soon draws Rose into a world where she can explore her passions after she suffers a great betrayal from Chet. But Rose also sees Ethan as something else, as a thief. And so the story is tinged with betrayal and prejudice all round – nobody is immune to these prejudices that run around New York City in the nineteenth century, yet in a world where the progressives are forging forward with their goals, can Ethan and Rose find a way to combat those who wish to tear them down?
The Eighth Wonder explores the early vestiges of feminism, the suffragette movement and women’s empowerment at a time when it was deemed inappropriate for women to do more than marry and pop out babies for their husbands. But women did much more than this. Like Claudette, Chet’s cousin, they pioneered unions and fought for worker’s rights, social justice, women’s rights and animal welfare. The real women that did these things – Lillian Wald, Florence Kelley and Susan B. Anthony – inspired Rose’s character and what she, Claudette, and Petra fought for during this time, and the educational programs that were set up, in secret I felt from the way they were described in the book, to help women move beyond what they were expected to do. The Eighth Wonder captures this fight and its juxtaposition against people like Edith and the pressures to conform and shows that women wanted more and fought for more in their lives. It was a hard fight – there were many who refused to listen, and those who took credit or even plagiarised what these women created.
I loved that this explored the world of architecture which was a very male dominated area during the late nineteenth century, and women like Rose, or those she was inspired by – Julia Morgan – were fighting for recognition. Julia Morgan, the first woman to attend the Ecole des Beaux Arts architecture school in Paris makes a small cameo, cementing the idea that women did overcome barriers during this time, but they just had to fight harder than men at times to get there, and to prove themselves, which is what attracted me to this book – that it pushed the story of the women who wanted to change things to the forefront and did not allow the people around them who wanted to maintain the status quo to pull them down and make them give up on their goals.
At the same time, this book very touchingly and realistically, explored animal welfare through the fictionalised story of Topsy (Daisy in the novel), a circus elephant who was mistreated, and put to death in 1903. Tania has delicately rewritten this story for Daisy beautifully. She has explored how animals were treated in circuses and how people viewed animals and animal welfare during the late nineteenth century. It was the progressive characters that truly made this story what it was – you could see what they wanted, and the stark contrasts with the traditionalists, and the power of a drive to make sure that change can happen, even if it happens slowly at first.
New York was as much a character as the human characters, and like the human characters, was also filled with contradictions – the clash of the traditional with the progressive, and the people caught between two worlds where they are trying to be a part of both – as though they are trying to please one world, whilst also wishing to be part of another world – and in this instance, in this novel, there is the sense that one has to choose and both have good points and bad points. This book celebrates these aspects – and the way we are trying to navigate a world throughout history that wants us to make choices, where we are told we cannot have both worlds, but perhaps, like Rose, we can forge our own fate, and make our own choices. This is one of those books that promises so much, and delivers in many ways, and where I hope that there will be something for everyone in this story.