I was really excited to read this book. I found it while browsing Barnes and Noble once and I had put it on my Goodreads list right away. However, it was slightly disappointing. I felt like it was a bit of a rip-off from Water for Elephants. The story itself was different, and not a love story like Elephants, but it was a circus theme and one of the main characters who did not grow up in the circus, learns to live the circus life, much like Elephants.
The story is set in World War II in Europe (I think Germany is where it starts). The chapters flip back and forth between first person accounts from Noa and Astrid. Noa is a 16 year old girl who’s just been sent away by her family for getting pregnant by a German (Nazi) soldier. She stays at a girl’s home, but her baby was immediately taken away from her after it is born. While working at a train station, she hears what sounds like babies crying in a seemingly empty boxcar. Turns out, it is full of dying/dead babies and Noa feels compelled to save just one if she can’t save them all. In order to save the baby and not get caught, Noa abandons her job at the train station and stumbles upon a traveling circus. This is where she meets Astrid.
Astrid is an older woman who’s lived in a circus all her life as a trapeze aerialist. Astrid has a big secret – she is a Jew. Herr Neuhoff, the master, hides Astrid in his circus in exchange for her talents as an aerialist. Astrid is in a relationship with one of the other main acts of the show, a clown named Peter. When Noa arrives, Astrid’s world is rocked. She doesn’t want to help Noa at all and under Herr Neuhoff’s command, begrudgingly trains Noa to become an aerialist.
I feel like this novel was a bit darker than I expected. There are a lot of tense scenes where Astrid and Noa are escaping Nazis or nearly falling from the trapeze. The scene with the dead and dying babies in the boxcar was quite heart-wrenching. The author stated in the back of the book that she had to “put [her] own children on that train” in order to make it seem real and devastating. I found Noa to be quite brave for her age, because at 16, I don’t know if I would’ve had the courage to escape with a baby and be on the run all alone.
While the book did pick up the pace towards the end, the beginning was quite rough for me. That’s why I’ve gone so long between posts because I couldn’t get into this book right up until the end. I think if you haven’t read Water for Elephants yet, you may find this book more engaging than I did.