Book Review: Love and Other Consolation Prizes

From the bestselling author of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet comes a powerful novel, inspired by a true story, about a boy whose life is transformed at Seattle’s epic 1909 World’s Fair.

For twelve-year-old Ernest Young, a charity student at a boarding school, the chance to go to the World’s Fair feels like a gift. But only once he’s there, amid the exotic exhibits, fireworks, and Ferris wheels, does he discover that he is the one who is actually the prize. The half-Chinese orphan is astounded to learn he will be raffled off–a healthy boy “to a good home.”

The winning ticket belongs to the flamboyant madam of a high-class brothel, famous for educating her girls. There, Ernest becomes the new houseboy and befriends Maisie, the madam’s precocious daughter, and a bold scullery maid named Fahn. Their friendship and affection form the first real family Ernest has ever known–and against all odds, this new sporting life gives him the sense of home he’s always desired.

But as the grande dame succumbs to an occupational hazard and their world of finery begins to crumble, all three must grapple with hope, ambition, and first love.

Fifty years later, in the shadow of Seattle’s second World’s Fair, Ernest struggles to help his ailing wife reconcile who she once was with who she wanted to be, while trying to keep family secrets hidden from their grown-up daughters.

Against a rich backdrop of post-Victorian vice, suffrage, and celebration, Love and Other Consolations is an enchanting tale about innocence and devotion–in a world where everything, and everyone, is for sale.

Love and Other Consolation Prizes is a truly lovely look at memories, connections, and the complicated ways in which families are formed.

We meet Ernest as an adult in 1969, as the World’s Fair (with its brand-spanking-new Space Needle) is getting underway in Seattle. Ernest is living apart from his beloved wife Gracie because of a disorder that has stolen most of her memories and leaves her highly agitated whenever Ernest is around. As he sees the city preparing for the spectacle of the World’s Fair, he’s brought back to his memories of 1909, when he fell in love with two very different girls during a visit to the Alaska Yukon Pacific Expo, held at the very same place.

Ernest’s earliest memories are horrific — his life as a starving child in China whose mother gives him away because she knows she can’t care for him. He’s basically sold as chattel and carted across the sea to America, where he moves through a succession of charity homes and schools, always an outsider due to his interracial heritage. Equally horrible is the way in which his patron offers him off as a raffle prize, a humiliating experience for Ernest which ultimately leads to the happiest years of his life. As a 12-year-old servant in the Tenderloin brothel, he’s treated kindly and given a home, surrounded by the upstairs girls and the servants, all of whom shower him with love and make him feel for the very first time as if he truly belongs.

At the Tenderloin, he forms a deep attachment to both Fahn, a Japanese girl a few years older than him who works as a servant, and Maisie, the tomboy daughter of the house madam who seems destined to follow in her mother’s footsteps. The three of them form a tight-knit unit, and stick together through unexpected changes to their happy home.

Author Jamie Ford keeps us guessing until close to the end. We know that Ernest loved both girls as a young boy, and that he ended up married to one, but he manages to avoid revealing the answer without any unnecessary gimmicks. It works; both girls love Ernest and have special relationships with him. We can tell how much they all care for one another, with the purity of an adolescent friendship that hasn’t bloomed into outright romance.

Mixed in with Ernest’s memories of the early 20th century are scenes from 1969, as he begins to share pieces of his past with his grown daughter, revealing his own secrets but wanting to preserve his wife’s. As the novel progresses, the entire family is changed by some of the truths that begin to be revealed.

He drew a deep breath. Memories are narcotic, he thought. Like the array of pill bottles that sit cluttered on my nightstand. Each dose, carefully administred, use as directed. Too much and they become dangerous. Too much and they’ll stop your heart.

The writing in Love and Other Consolation Prizes is beautiful. Through rich descriptions, we get a true sense of Seattle in the early 20th century, with the flavors of its neighborhoods, the personalities and politics of its citizens, and the diversity and tensions springing from so many different people living in such close proximity to one another.

The descriptions of Ernest’s time at the Tenderloin really shine. The brothel isn’t tawdry; it’s an upscale establishment, frequented by the upper crust of Seattle society, with girls who receive dance, elocution, and Latin lessons in order to be able to entertain and converse intelligently with the clientele. The people of the Tenderloin are a family, and it’s only Madam Flora’s illness that brings an end to the idyllic days there.

Likewise, the more horrible aspects of Ernest’s past — the memories from China and the sea journey, especially — are painted for us in language evocative of the experiences as they would have been felt and remembered by a child. These sections of the book are upsetting and feel quite real, but since we know from the start that Ernest survived and ultimately thrived, the bad parts never overwhelm the more upbeat parts of the story.

I highly recommend Love and Other Consolation Prizes. As historical fiction, it succeeds in bringing the reader into the world of Seattle in both 1909 and 1969, tied together nicely by the World’s Fair at each of these two times. And as a story of human relationships and the complications of love, it simply shines. Love and Other Consolation Prizes is a gorgeously written book that tells a fascinating tale, and in my opinion, is one of 2017’s must-reads.

Interested in this author? Check out my review of his first novel, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet.

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The details:

Title: Love and Other Consolation Prizes
Author: Jamie Ford
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Publication date: September 12, 2017
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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4 thoughts on “Book Review: Love and Other Consolation Prizes

  1. Great review – definitely caught my attention! A gal in my book club found Graced 1943 by Courtney Milford. It’s in the historical fantasy genre and it’s the first in the series The Grace Family Chronicles (http://courtneybooks.com/). We’re adding it to our TBR list, and we may have to add this as well!

    • Thanks for the recommendation! I think Love and Other Consolation Prizes would make a terrific book group pick – -there’s so much to discuss. I’ll see if I can convince my book group to add it to our list!

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