Book of the Week: Church of Marvels- Leslie Parry

A bookseller acquaintance wrote me saying that this debut reminded him of Kevin Baker’s Dreamland, a wonderful historical novel about turn-of-the-century New York which had entirely fallen off my mental map. It’s a great reference in that both books have the same three-dimensional, “you are there” vividness I remember being electrified by the first time I read Ragtime.

Church of Marvels follows the fates of four people in 1899 New York–from a Coney Island side show to a lunatic asylum, from tenement alleys to middle class parlor rooms. Emma Donohue’s summary of this magically atmospheric books captures it best: “This quite literally marvelous novel takes you on a hallucinatory ride through old New York, until the four threads of its protagonists’ lives tangle and tighten like a noose. Irresistible.”

It arrives as both an Indie Next and Indies Introduce pick with strong advance reviews.

“Like the late-19th-century circus attraction of its title, Parry’s impressive debut is startling, full of wonders, and built around the bizarre; furthermore, it has compassion for human difference at its heart….Parry vividly brings her characters to life and captures the underbelly of 1895 New York—a place of baby sellers, opium dens, and brothels where what is painful and what is profitable merge. Her novel satisfies as a complex historical fiction, a compelling mystery, and an insightful exploration of such themes as otherness and outsider identity.”
Publishers Weekly

Parry’s creative debut…bursts with extraordinary, Dickensian-style details of 1895 New York. Amid the city’s grimy waterfronts, opium dens, and other lowlife regions, four impoverished misfits pursue separate missions….Their stories twine together in ways that feel surprising when first encountered but were actually carefully planted from the start. Emphasizing the plight of women, orphans, and society’s nonconforming outcasts, the setting is superbly showcased, with its medley of sights and smells both wretched and wondrous.”
   — Booklist

“In Parry’s colorful debut novel, seedy corners of late 19th-century New York come alive… Parry’s writing is smooth and descriptive, and she imbues these misfit characters and shabby, sometimes horrifying settings with energy and depth. Beautifully written, Parry’s imaginative novel is most successful when exploring the limitations and complexities of gender and sexuality during its historical period.”
   — Kirkus Reviews

“In this page-turner of a debut very little is what it first appears to be. Set in Coney Island and Manhattan at the end of the 19th century, Church of Marvels is populated with carnival folk and others living on the edge of society with either much to hide or much to discover. The characters are richly drawn and their circumstances exceptionally intriguing as they seek and find the complicated truths of their lives in the dark underbelly of New York.”
— Cathy Langer, Tattered Cover Book Store, Denver, CO

“An exhilarating period piece set in 1895 New York brings together a distinctly disparate group of characters in a story that is exciting, enthralling and uplifting.  As the lives of four definite outcasts of society come together the reader gets a beautiful portrayal of the time and era when the underbelly of society was both hidden and ignored.  But the true essence of the novel is its soaring assertion of the individuality of people who will not be bound by that society’s strictures.
–Bill Cusumano, Square Books, Oxford, MS

Church of Marvels (9780062367556) by Leslie Parry. $26.99 hardcover. 5/5/15 on sale.

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