The Swan Gondola

  • Timothy Schaffert
  • Timothy Schaffert
  • 458 pp.
  • Reviewed by Jennifer Showell-Hartogs
  • February 6, 2014

Love, lost and found, against a backdrop of the 1898 World’s Fair.

From the grim and gritty streets of Omaha emerged the 1898 World’s Fair, a white oasis in a burgeoning city filled with thieves, performers, cross-dressers, and con men. It is against this backdrop that we meet Bartholomew “Ferret” Skerritt, a self-proclaimed cad wooing his way through the Empress Opera House’s burlesque dancers. The orphaned son of a prostitute, Ferret became a thief and a con man to survive his impoverished childhood, but he is earning a more-or-less honest living as a ventriloquist and writer-for-hire when he meets the mysterious actress Cecily. Ferret and Cecily’s romance unfolds through flashbacks as Ferret convalesces on two spinster sisters’ farm, where he crashed after stealing the Fair’s hot-air balloon.

While performing his ventriloquist act at the Empress before the Fair begins, Ferret briefly encounters Cecily, who disappears as quickly and completely as she appeared. Although Ferret has romanced many women, sweet-talking them into accompanying him to his room above the opera house, it is only Cecily who provokes the thrill of love – a rush Ferret compares to being robbed.  He tracks her to the World’s Fair, where he convinces her to ride with him on the swan gondola. Like most of the book’s characters, the swan gondola, with its dirty façade and chipped paint, is shabby and worn. But sailing on the swan gondola, in a man-made lagoon during the peak of summer’s heat and humidity, Ferret somehow manages to win the affections of the reluctant Cecily and her illegitimate daughter, Doxie.

Swept up in their own romance and the allure of the World Fair, Ferret and Cecily begin an improbable friendship with Billy Wakefield, Omaha’s wealthiest and most tragic man. Although Wakefield’s interest in Cecily gradually becomes clear, Ferret continues to accept the man’s invitations to high-society events, and he is blinded by the vanity of wanting “the richest in Omaha to want everything that was mine.” Ferret’s luck turns for the worse when he gives in to temptation and sells his ventriloquist’s dummy, Oscar – his livelihood – to Wakefield. It is on this same night that Cecily’s headaches begin – an ailment that ultimately sends her into Wakefield’s arms. Is it Ferret’s greed and vanity that change their luck, or is it their destiny? 

In The Swan Gondola, Timothy Schaffert spins the tale of this unlikely and ill-fated love affair, a story that is unique in its eccentric details but feels familiar overall. In the author’s note, Schaffert remarks that “The Wizard of Oz” was in part an inspiration for his novel, as depicted by Ferret’s wayward balloon ride, the emergence of the “oracle” and the Emerald Cathedral on the Old Sisters Egan’s farm. The Swan Gondola evokes hints of other works, including the mysticism of Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, the mystery of Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City, and the misfortunes depicted in “La bohème” or “Moulin Rouge!”.

Schaffert’s poignant and eloquent storytelling cajoles the reader into rooting for the underdog:  the overlooked and often mistreated lower class. Luck is rarely on their side, and Ferret and Cecily’s story is not the only sad tale of love lost. The love of August, Ferret’s best friend and admirer, remains unrequited. Emmaline Egan’s beau has long left for another, leaving her a spinster on a failing farm. Even Cecily’s forlorn and forgotten friend Pearl, and Phoebe, the one burlesque dancer at the Empress to evade Ferret’s advances, find and lose love. But Ferret and Cecily’s love seems dubious, with Cecily reluctant to accept Ferret’s proposals and Ferret’s love letters implausibly elegant for a nineteenth century orphan with no formal education. As a result, I wasn’t sure whether to be pleased or disappointed with the book’s ending. After delving into the characters’ struggles, their physical pain, and their heartache, the conclusion seemed unlikely and possibly unrealistic.

The Swan Gondola is filled with twists and turns – perhaps too many. The story of love gained and lost (and gained and lost) is revealed alongside death, murder, spiritual possession, anarchy, theft, and kidnapping. It is unclear whether The Swan Gondola is meant to be a love story or a thriller, but the combination of the two somehow falls a bit short, in spite of Schaffert’s beautiful prose. However, while the foreshadowing may have been slightly excessive, it kept me turning the pages to find out what Wakefield – the story’s sympathetic villain – had done to earn Ferret’s hatred and to see what fate held in store for the story’s lovers. As Ferret himself notes, “We’re grateful for all the suspense… The mystery of it is where the magic is… If that’s the ending, we don’t want to know it.”

Jennifer Showell-Hartogs is an avid reader, world traveler, and a federal employee. She resides in Arlington, Virginia, with her husband, daughter, and dog. 


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