The Life She Was Givenby Ellen Marie Wiseman

Paperback, 356 pages
Published July 25th 2017 by Kensington Publishing Corporation
4.5 Stars

Synopsis: On a summer evening in 1931, Lilly Blackwood glimpses circus lights from the grimy window of her attic bedroom. Lilly isn’t allowed to explore the meadows around Blackwood Manor. She’s never even ventured beyond her narrow room. Momma insists it’s for Lilly’s own protection, that people would be afraid if they saw her. But on this unforgettable night, Lilly is taken outside for the first time–and sold to the circus sideshow.

More than two decades later, nineteen-year-old Julia Blackwood has inherited her parents’ estate and horse farm. For Julia, home was an unhappy place full of strict rules and forbidden rooms, and she hopes that returning might erase those painful memories. Instead, she becomes immersed in a mystery involving a hidden attic room and photos of circus scenes featuring a striking young girl.

At first, The Barlow Brothers’ Circus is just another prison for Lilly. But in this rag-tag, sometimes brutal world, Lilly discovers strength, friendship, and a rare affinity for animals. Soon, thanks to elephants Pepper and JoJo and their handler, Cole, Lilly is no longer a sideshow spectacle but the circus’s biggest attraction. . .until tragedy and cruelty collide. It will fall to Julia to learn the truth about Lilly’s fate and her family’s shocking betrayal, and find a way to make Blackwood Manor into a place of healing at last.

Moving between Julia and Lilly’s stories, Ellen Marie Wiseman portrays two extraordinary, very different women in a novel that, while tender and heartbreaking, offers moments of joy and indomitable hope.

My Review: This story was so much more than I expected. Told from the perspectives of Lilly in the 1930s and Julia in the 1950s. Lilly Blackwood, an albino girl, was sold to the circus by her mother during the depression. Lilly did not know why her mother did not love her and why her father did nothing to help. She was told she was horrendous looking and if she was out in public, people would do terrible things to her. Her part of the story describes her life in the circus. It was not all smiles and laughs. She was purchased from her mother by the owner of the Side Show and he treated her terribly. She was beaten, ridiculed and almost raped. Julia Blackwood, born almost 2 decades later, was also treated poorly by her mother until she could no longer stand it and ran away from home. Her father had already died and her mother blamed her for it. When she finally gets word that her mother has died, she returns to Blackwood Manor with mixed feelings. Once there, she realized that she needs to find out what went wrong with her family. She begins to explore and uncover secrets.

There are many themes in this book. The first is the idea of freaks, albinism was treated very differently in the past. We now have much more tolerance for people born with defects, however it is not as good as it should be. The theme of animal cruelty also resonates throughout Lilly’s section when she is talking about the circus. There is also some religious fanaticism and both child abuse and abuse of women. Sections of the book require a strong stomach. This is the first book I have read by this author and I was not disappointed. The characters were well developed and the scenes were descriptive, but not overly so. There are many parts of this book based on real situations, which makes it even more thought provoking. Overall, this was a great read and I recommend it to anyone who enjoys historical fiction, reading about circuses, family drama etc. The publisher generously provided me with a copy of this book via Netgalley.