Genre: Historical Fiction
Source: Received via Netgalley for Review with TLC Book Tours
A powerful novel of friendship set in a traveling circus during World War II, The Orphan's Tale introduces two extraordinary women and their harrowing stories of sacrifice and survival .
Sixteen-year-old Noa has been cast out in disgrace after becoming pregnant by a Nazi soldier and being forced to give up her baby. She lives above a small rail station, which she cleans in order to earn her keep… When Noa discovers a boxcar containing dozens of Jewish infants bound for a concentration camp, she is reminded of the child that was taken from her. And in a moment that will change the course of her life, she snatches one of the babies and flees into the snowy night.
Noa finds refuge with a German circus, but she must learn the flying trapeze act so she can blend in undetected, spurning the resentment of the lead aerialist, Astrid. At first rivals, Noa and Astrid soon forge a powerful bond. But as the facade that protects them proves increasingly tenuous, Noa and Astrid must decide whether their friendship is enough to save one another—or if the secrets that burn between them will destroy everything.
I had previously read another novel by Jenoff, The Ambassador’s Daughter, and while I had some quibbles with it, I enjoyed the novel enough to be extremely intrigued when I saw The Orphan’s Tale pop up on my radar. I am pleased to say that I LOVED this book and it will definitely be on my top list at the end of the year.
The Orphan’s Tale struck a note for me right from the start that is guarantee to hook me: a story set in/around a circus during WWII. I enjoy reading WWII novels, especially those that are not set on the battlefield and explore little niche areas. The circus was not something I had really ever thought about as existing outside of the United States and certainly not within the realm of the War. I thought that it was fascinating to see how the War affected the circus – some folded and some continued on in some capacity at the mercy of the Third Reich, but they were always at risk of search and closure. There was a desperate feel as they tried to put on a show and entertain the people, but always knowing that anything could happen at any time. That feeling definitely permeated much of the story. It is also clear that the author spent a lot of time understanding the circus and this felt very real and was not just used as a backdrop for a story. It was very much a living character with a life of its own.
Throughout the story I kept harkening back to two books that I felt had much in common with this one: Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen and The Circus Fire by Stewart O’Nan. Both of these books (the former a novel and the latter non-fiction) involve circus disasters as their central focal point, and while that might not be quite the same in The Orphan’s Tale, there is the feeling of impending disaster that will come at some point, and it does, which brought both of those circus disasters (both real and fake) to mind. More directly, the way The Orphan’s Tale is framed, an elderly individual going to great lengths to attend a circus exhibit and then share their tale, immediately connected me to Water for Elephants, and that prior reading experience possibly colored how I perceived the character in this novel. It was an interesting exploration of how a prior experience can affect how you connect with a book and I would love to talk with someone who had not read Water for Elephants previously and see if they had the same experience that I did.
At its heart, this is a story of relationships in the very worst situations. While there are a couple romantic relationships, it really is about friendships. How those change and evolve over time, how people act under stressful situations, how friendship can take on different meanings, and how someone can be so critical in your life at the right time – all these are explored within this novel. Noa and Astrid are the two main characters whose perspective we see the world from and they are both coming from very different worlds, but are very similar in some ways. Their courage in the face of disaster ties them together, but their differences in past experience and secrets they have keep them at odds with each other. As a reader you go through a push-pull of emotions, at times seeing the perspective of one and then the other, which keeps you on your toes.
There was one element that I didn’t completely buy into and that was the frame for the story. It begins and ends set in the present with a character (who you don’t know who it is at the opening of the novel, but it is revealed at the end) who travels to an event held to remember the circus. This event and the artifacts there mean a lot to this person as they are trying to figure something out that they have clearly held on to for a long time. I changed my mind several times throughout the reading as to who this person was, and boy was I wrong! That is one thing that Jenoff carries off here that I also applauded in my review of The Ambassador’s Daughter, the ability to keep the reader off the track and then surprise them with a shocking revelation. I didn’t find this character totally believable in the driving reason to seek out this event and to try to reconnect with the past. I also struggle with the title and how that plays into who the bookending character is. It felt as if a different character being the focus of the present day storyline would have been more appropriate and make more sense in the larger scope of the story.
However, overall the story worked for me. I will admit to shedding a few tears as well toward the end of the book, which is difficult for a novel to achieve.
Reviews of this book by other bloggers:
Also by Pam Jenoff:
The Ambassador’s Daughter
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Monday, February 20th: A Chick Who Reads
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Monday, March 13th: Diary of an Eccentric
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