Friday, June 16, 2017

The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb by Melanie Benjamin

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Personal Kindle Library
Read: June 5, 2017

She was only two-foot eight-inches tall, but her legend reaches out to us more than a century later. As a child, Mercy Lavinia “Vinnie” Bump was encouraged to live a life hidden away from the public. Instead, she reached out to the immortal impresario P. T. Barnum, married the tiny superstar General Tom Thumb in the wedding of the century, and transformed into the world’s most unexpected celebrity. Here, in Vinnie’s singular and spirited voice, is her amazing adventure—from a showboat “freak” revue where she endured jeering mobs to her fateful meeting with the two men who would change her life: P. T. Barnum and Charles Stratton, AKA Tom Thumb. Their wedding would captivate the nation, preempt coverage of the Civil War, and usher them into the White House and the company of presidents and queens. But Vinnie’s fame would also endanger the person she prized most: her similarly-sized sister, Minnie, a gentle soul unable to escape the glare of Vinnie’s spotlight. A barnstorming novel of the Gilded Age, and of a woman’s public triumphs and personal tragedies, The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb is the irresistible epic of a heroine who conquered the country with a heart as big as her dreams—and whose story will surely win over yours.

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Lavinia Warren
Several months ago, I stumbled over a documentary entitled The Seven Dwarfs of Auschwitz. The broadcast centers on the Ovitz family and after watching it, I went looking for a fictional account of their lives and experiences. Unfortunately for me, their story has not yet inspired an author to put pen to paper, but by the time I discovered that fact, I was dead set on finding a book that featured a dwarf in the leading role which is what led to my discovery of Melanie Benjamin’s The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb.

Vinnie’s path to fame was inherently related to her size, but she did not allow her stature to define her and I love how Benjamin threaded that principle into the fabric of her narrative. The author does not shy away from the daily challenges of life as a little person, but her central themes are those of an ambitious and fiercely passionate woman, fighting to achieve her dreams and face down the world on her own terms. Excuse me for gushing, but I think that a beautiful message and couldn’t help admiring Benjamin for honing it on it as she did here.

The historic elements of the story, however, were less compelling. I found the details pertaining to the intricacies and eccentricities of P.T. Barnum’s amusements fascinating, but the intermission sequences that tied Vinnie’s life to larger world events such as the American Civil War seemed out of place, distracting, and detrimental to the already plodding pace of the narrative.

Though I love what the character represented, I also struggled with Vinnie’s arrogance and self-superiority. I often grew so frustrated with her that I wanted to scream and more than once considered abandoning the novel outright. I loved the supporting cast – Sylvia, Minnie, and Charles in particular – but Vinnie herself tested my patience.

Would I recommend The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb? Yes, but hesitantly and after both The Aviator’s Wife and The Swans of Fifth Avenue. I don’t mean to be hard on the novel. I liked a lot of the thematic execution, but the found the execution difficult to navigate.

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“That's just it, don't you see? I don't want to be taken care of! I don't want be hidden away, a burden! I want to make my own way! To have a greater purpose!'” 
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topazshell said...

This rates as Cover Crush, doesn't it?

Erin Davies said...

I suppose it could! You're not the first one to tell me that. I've actually received similar comments on Facebook.