I got this through my Book of the Month subscription. (I totally recommend this as a subscription service, by the way.) It's been on my shelf for months and I hadn't gotten to it yet, so it seemed like an excellent time to pick it up for my reading challenge, and particularly for the category of "A book with a red spine." As you can see, this book has a lovely deep red cover, and the spine matches.
The story here follows Ada Bates, later known as the Amazing Arden. As a girl, Ada dreams of being a dancer, but those dreams are shattered when she misses an audition with a famous dance instructor because her abusive step-cousin--who believes he has healing powers and is sickly fascinated with Arden--throws her out of a barn loft and breaks her leg. She eventually flees his abuse, working as a servant for a while and then travelling north to New York City where she eventually becomes a dancer and assistant in the show of the only female illusionist at the time. The rest of the story follows Ada (Also known as Vivi! So many names!) as she climbs the ladder within the company, comes to renown of her own, and desperately tries to avoid the twisted cousin into the bargain.
All of this story is told as a sort of flashback, by Arden herself--while she's handcuffed to a chair in the police station of a town in Nowhere, Iowa. See, the book starts with a magic show...and a murder. And Arden is the prime suspect. But the cop who catches her is intrigued by her insistence that she didn't kill anyone and agrees to listen to her story...partially because he starts to notice her strange healing abilities, which he hopes to benefit from himself.
I really enjoyed this book. With a title like that, you know there's a lie somewhere in it, and I spent a lot of the book trying to figure out if Arden was an unreliable narrator and, if so, exactly what she was being unreliable about. At the end, the lie itself is so simple, and yet so devastating at the same time because it highlights exactly how much of a victim Arden really was, in both body and mind. That's the read beauty of this: it shows how someone can be strong and independent, but still a victim. One is not exclusive of the other and neither one has to define you. It's a lovely message and one that I think a lot of people will be able to empathize with.
MacAllister also does a wonderful job of building this period. From Biltmore to New York to Chicago, all around the turn of the century (nineteenth to twentieth), she captures the sense of wonder of a building nation just as magically as she does the illusions on the stage and Arden's powers themselves. She also leaves a bit of mystery lingering--is Arden the only one with abilities, or are there more? And if there are more, what sort of abilities are they? Healing in a more...menacing way? Second sight? Is there any chance that the end here isn't really the end, that the story will consider? It's something to think about and I think it allows the reader to determine the ultimate end of Arden's tale. Happily ever after...or not so much?
A wonderful story and I really enjoyed it. Did it blow my mind and call me back to it as soon as I was done? No. But it was lovely and elegant and I think it's definitely worth a read.
4 stars out of 5.