Title: The Ladies of the Secret Circus
Author: Constance Sayers
Publication date: March 23, 2021
Length: 448 pages
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Paris, 1925: To enter the Secret Circus is to enter a world of wonder-a world where women tame magnificent beasts, carousels take you back in time, and trapeze artists float across the sky. But each daring feat has a cost. Bound to her family’s strange and magical circus, it’s the only world Cecile Cabot knows-until she meets a charismatic young painter and embarks on a passionate love affair that could cost her everything.
Virginia, 2005: Lara Barnes is on top of the world-until her fiancé disappears on their wedding day. Desperate, her search for answers unexpectedly leads to her great-grandmother’s journals and sweeps her into the story of a dark circus and a generational curse that has been claiming payment from the women in her family for generations.
The Ladies of the Secret Circus is a tale of family secrets and a dark heritage — but it doesn’t quite live up to the mysterious air promised by the cover and synopsis.
Lara is eagerly awaiting her wedding to Todd, the man she’s loved since her teens. But her joy turns to heartache when she’s left waiting at the altar on her wedding day. Did he jilt her? Did something happen to him? His abandoned car seems to provide a link to a similar disappearance that occurred 30 years earlier. Dark forces seem to be at play. Could this be related to Lara and her mother Audrey’s talent for magic? Or the fact that their small town in Virginia hasn’t had a single murder case in decades? Or Lara’s strange memories of being visited as a child by an unusual man who made incredible things happen?
In the months that follow, Todd’s fate remains a mystery and Lara starts to rebuild her life, but a gift from her mother sends her on a strange journey. The gift is a small painting that’s been hanging in Audrey’s house for as long as Lara can remember — a portrait of her great-grandmother Cecile as a young circus performer.
When Lara takes the painting to be reframed, the art expert who handles it is astonished to realize that this may be one of the rumored missing paintings by the great Jazz Age artist Emile Giroux. He supposedly painted his masterpiece, a series of three paintings called The Ladies of the Secret Circus, before his death, but no one has ever seen the paintings. If Lara’s painting is authentic, then its value is in the millions, and its discovery will rock the art world.
But as Lara investigates, the connection to ancient magics is revealed, especially once she begins to read Cecile’s long-lost diaries. The diaries tell a story of a mysterious, otherworldly circus that only appears to those who truly seek it, and the strange, damned performers who populate the circus and seemingly can never leave. There’s a connection to Lara’s family, but it’s beyond anything Lara could have expected, and carries huge dangers for her and everyone around her.
While the set-up is promising, the book itself didn’t meet my expectations. Some of this may be me — I seem to have issues with magical circus settings, since apparently I’m the only person in the world who didn’t love The Night Circus. The big revelations in this book about the Secret Circus struck me as too out-there to accept. I have problems with books where the use of magic makes anything and everything possible — at some point, it stops feeling like any rules apply at all.
The connections to Lara’s family are confusing, and the origin of the connection is just kind of dumped on the reader earlier on. The how’s and why’s of it all just didn’t work for me. So many of the more fantastical elements are stated as fact, but without a sense of build-up or setting to make these aspects feel at all plausible. The identities of some of the circus performers are supposed to ground the circus in our own world, but without giving anything away, I’ll just say that these pieces struck me as absurd and funny, rather than dramatic.
I enjoyed the diary entries, with their 1920s Paris setting, but again, the constant name-dropping of artists and authors like Hemingway, Chagall, and Man Ray made me feel distracted and as if the author were trying too hard to make the story real. It just didn’t work for me — somehow the use of real artists in this fictional tale felt out of place and at odds with the story the author was trying to tell.
Sad to say, overall this was a disappointing read for me. I loved the author’s previous book, A Witch in Time, and such high hopes for this one. Unfortunately, The Ladies of the Secret Circus started slowly and never fully pulled me in.