Handler's fierce, sensually vivid debut novel takes off from the life of a little-known but fascinating figure from 19th-century American history.
Lulu Hurst was a gawky 14-year-old from a small town in Georgia when she entered the public eye. Beginning in 1883, she toured on the vaudeville circuit for two years, demonstrating magical powers allegedly acquired from magnetic forces that entered her body during an electrical storm. Giggling sweetly, she would cause men much larger than herself to be catapulted across a room or levitated from the chairs in which they were firmly seated. Working from a self-debunking autobiography Lulu published decades later, memoirist Handler (Braving the Fire, 2013, etc.) veers from history to create a satisfying work of fiction featuring a damaged younger brother, an ambitious father with a taste for gambling, and a dead grandmother with a surprising connection to the young magician. Lulu, who narrates most of the novel, is a compelling character, simultaneously intense and insecure. She knows that the act she and her skeptical father work out is designed to take advantage of the “marks” in the audience, but she also feels she has a real ability to “captivate” and “mesmerize” those she chooses to control, and she hopes she will gain the ability to heal her brother. Supersensitive, she pricks her skin with a needle to bring her giddy emotions under control, hears the thoughts of others, and feels a hangnail “shrill like a bugle from a fat man driving a cart.” As vivid as Lulu is the theatrical environment where she engages in “the subtle work of humbugging the city's finest” and is dazzled daily by an aerialist with trained cats or a juggler wearing “revealing tights.” Using this unique situation, Handler captures the ambivalence of female adolescence, where the newfound ability to captivate others exists in unsteady balance with the fear of loss of independence.
A thoroughly fresh historical novel that both captures the essence of its time and echoes challenges that still exist today.