I have been gifted an Advanced Review Copy of “Professor Renoir’s Collection of Oddities, Curiosities, and Delights” by Randall Platt in exchange for an honest review.
Randall Platt’s latest novel is another page turner, this time set in the late 1800s. But it is also set in a world of its own, the world of circuses when they were still in abundance and drew the crowds at the price of a nickel or a dime. At the center of the story, which unfolds at a beautiful pace, not too fast, not too drawn, is a teenage girl, Fern (also called Babe), suffering from gigantism. Whereas to most she is the icon of a strong, almost manly being, she very much yearns to look more feminine, to fit into the crowd, to be more graceful, and not to be in such pain from continuous growth. Her antagonist, a beautiful small girl whose act is with a dwarf elephant, becomes her friend after much competing for being the audiences’ favorite star. And there are other circus people who have fallen out of society and try to make a living with more or less convincing performances. Scratch away the make-up, and in a bitter-sweet way they all become unglamorous and likeable. Except the circus director, Professor Renoir, who in his own ways is fighting for survival.
The normalness of people who have become much gawked-at outcasts of society, their need for human kindness and affection, their craving for respect and dignity find expression in them shaping an unlikely family in which almost everybody looks out for everybody. Babe, though obviously even here a misfit due to her incredible strength, height, and naïveté, has a special knack with animals and saves more than one from a dire fate.
The tale Randall Platt unfolds is filled with clashes between ignorant onlookers and the circus people, the exploitation of weaknesses, and willy-nilly injuring human beings who are slightly different from the norm. And this norm of society doesn’t look too good. A wonderful book that reminds us to see beyond the surface of the visible and to search for the true identity of the people we encounter. Turns out that the oddities, curiosities, and delights are human beings like us – and Babe holds her mirror into our faces: Ecce homo.