Water for Elephants meets The Night Circus in this World War II debut about a magnificent travelling circus, a star-crossed romance, and one girl’s coming-of-age during the darkest of times.
“A powerful reminder that to live is not just to survive, but to be seen and known for ourselves.” —Pam Jenoff, author of The Orphan’s Tale
When all is lost, how do you find the courage to keep moving forward?
1938. Lena Papadopoulos has never quite found her place within the circus, even as the daughter of the extraordinary headlining illusionist, Theo. Brilliant and curious, Lena—who uses a wheelchair after a childhood bout with polio—yearns for the real-world magic of science and medicine, her mind stronger than the limitations placed on her by society. Then her unconventional life takes an exciting turn when she rescues Alexandre, an orphan with his own secrets and a mysterious past.
As World War II escalates around them, their friendship blossoms into something deeper while Alexandre trains as the illusionist’s apprentice. But when Theo and Alexandre are arrested and made to perform in a town for Jews set up by the Nazis, Lena is separated from everything she knows. Forced to make her own way, Lena must confront her doubts and dare to believe in the impossible—herself.
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|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.00(d)|
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September 1938—London, England
"How many do you think there are?"
"D'you think any of them are handsome?"
"Trust you, Suze, to ask that!"
Lena Papadopoulos stared at the two girls standing a few feet in front of her. They were gathered at the end of the hallway that led to the circus director's study, trying their best to gauge what was happening behind the closed doors.
Laura, an acrobat from Brighton, pulled her long blond hair into a ponytail and crouched down on the plush blue carpet. She was what the director, Horace, called a circus chameleon, possessing the rare ability to slip into any number of acts-aerial silks, trapeze, contortion-on a moment's notice.
"Maybe I can spot something from this angle." She splayed herself flat on her stomach and rested her chin in the tiny gap where the carpet met the cool marbled tile that made up the study's foyer. Lena thought she looked like an elegant, upside-down starfish.
"Oh, do get up! This is pointless," Suze moaned, a spray of springy red curls bouncing madly around her face. Suze had joined the circus in Dublin a year ago and was training to be a water ballerina. She jutted her hip out and glanced at Laura brushing lint from her leotard. "I dare you to go up there."
"Go on," Suze cajoled.
"No." Laura stretched her slender arms overhead and arched her rib cage forward.
Suze pouted and began kicking at the hallway baseboards, her bright green eyes roving around impishly before settling on Lena.
"Why hello, Lena. Didn't notice you there."
Lena blushed. She hadn't realized Suze even knew her name. "Hi," she squeaked, tentatively inching herself forward. A wide smile spread across Suze's face.
"How'd you like to play a game?" She pointed toward Horace's study. "If you go up there and see if there are any handsome boys, I'll give you a shilling."
"Suze," Laura warned.
"I'd like to play," Lena answered, grateful for the chance to be included.
A satisfied smile settled on Suze's face and she nodded toward the study. "Whenever you're ready."
Lena took a deep breath and began rolling herself forward. As she crossed over from the carpet onto the smooth marble, she felt her stomach turn somersaults and told herself firmly not to mess up. She had a chance to be a part of Suze's friend group. Everyone loved Suze. She was like a firefly, her magnetic temperament attracting the attention of boys and girls alike. As she drew closer to the double oak doors, Lena imagined what it would be like to sit next to Suze at meals and have those same children clamoring to speak with her.
Horace's study was housed in its own carriage, styled in a way that one would expect from the wealthy entertainment impresario. A giant spotlight shone from each side of the doors, ensuring that whenever Horace entered or exited, he was always the center of attention. A tiny row of hand-painted blue-and-gold tiles ran around the perimeter of the foyer. In the center, a stunning Ming vase, crafted from the finest porcelain, sat on a stone pedestal. The marble floor had been imported from a quarry in Italy, and the space just outside the doors was inlaid with a custom mosaic emblem of Horace's initials.
Lena came to a halt outside the entrance, positioning herself so that she could peer directly into the keyhole that was level with her line of sight.
"Well?" Suze whispered loudly.
Lena squinted, pushing one of the blue velvet tassels that hung from the brass door knockers out of the way. She could make out two young girls, a boy who looked to be a bit older than her, a set of older boys who were probably teenagers, a few adults, some children, and a mother jiggling her baby in her arms.
"I think I see him. Tall, black hair? Holding juggling balls?"
"That's him!" Suze nodded vigorously. "What's he saying?"
Lena placed her ear against the keyhole and tried to listen. While she waited, she thought about the inaugural dinner to be held that evening, the marquee event that kicked off the World of Wonders tour. Every year, Horace threw a lavish feast in the grand dining hall before the tour commenced. To be accepted into the World of Wonders was a prestigious thing, and Horace saw to it that no expense was spared. Last year's dinner had an Alice in Wonderland theme and featured dishes like mock turtle soup, glorious icebox cakes in every shape and size, and glasses of champagne with little tags that read Drink Me. After the meal, everyone had spilled outside, engaging in games of croquet with wooden mallets designed to look like flamingos and running through a maze that had been decorated with bushes of white roses splattered with brilliant splashes of red. This year's theme was the classic Russian fairy tale The Firebird, and Lena could hardly wait, remembering the fat stacks of fluffy blini she'd seen Mario preparing earlier in the kitchen.
"Suppose I do like one of them. What of it?"
Lena refocused on the task at hand, straining to catch the new recruits' words. But they had moved around in the study and she wasn't having any luck hearing, so she looked through the keyhole again and tried to lip-read.
"Remember that Jamie fellow? A fine mess you got yourself into!" Laura scolded. "All I'm saying is you don't want a repeat-"
Suddenly Lena drew back sharply. "Quick! They're coming!"
Suze and Laura took off like lightning, sprinting away from Lena toward a set of heavy blue velvet drapes farther down the hall. It was only after they'd reached the safety of the hanging fabric that Laura looked back, realizing what they'd done. Her face fell as she watched Lena furiously trying to maneuver her chair away from the door.
"Lena! The vase!" Laura jerked her head toward the pedestal.
Lena twisted her head, her eyes falling on the vase. It wouldn't hide her completely, but she didn't have any other options.
"Laura!" Suze whispered loudly from behind the lush folds. "Leave her!"
From her position in the foyer, exposed beyond belief, Lena caught Laura's eye, noting the pity on her face.
I'm sorry, Laura mouthed, before diving behind the drapes with a speed and grace that Lena would never have.
Lena shook her head and tried to move, intent on reaching the vase. But her right wheel appeared to be stuck.
"Come on," she muttered, bending over to see what was wrong. "Why won't you move?" Then she noticed that there was a small groove between the tiles where her wheel had gotten stuck.
"Lena!" Laura's voice echoed down the hallway and Lena looked up to see the golden knob of Horace's door twisting. Out of ideas and time, she sat up and pushed extra hard, moving herself backward at a fast clip. Good! she said to herself. If I can just get away from the doors, she thought. That's it. Almost there. She stole a quick glance forward. Horace had opened the door but was exiting with his back toward her. She just needed a few more seconds.
"As I said, dinner will begin-"
Horace came to an abrupt halt, and the frightened shouts of the new circus members filled the foyer. From her place a few feet away, Lena squeezed her eyes shut. But when she finally dared to look, her heart sank. Tiny bits of blue-and-white porcelain lay scattered all over the tiles.
"Lena!" Horace boomed. "What have you done?"
Out of the corner of her eye, Lena saw the tips of Suze's red hair disappear behind the curtains. "It was an accident," she said, forcing herself to look at Horace.
He was down on his knees, picking at the hundreds of pieces in front of him. "Have you any idea how expensive this was?"
"I'm sorry," Lena whispered, wishing she could sink into the floor. She knew this wasn't the first impression he wanted to give the new performers. Indeed, the dozen or so people who'd been in Horace's study were now staring at her uneasily.
"What's wrong with her?" A young girl pointed at Lena.
From the floor, Horace stood up with much difficulty, brushing bits of porcelain dust from his bespoke midnight-blue suit jacket. "Everyone, I'd like you to meet Lena, the daughter of our renowned illusionist, Theo Papadopoulos."
Lena cringed, wishing Horace would let her go. She knew what was coming next and, sure enough, the question landed right on target.
"How'd she get that way? Not on account of your circus, was it?" A young man who Lena surmised was a knife thrower, from the set of blades that gleamed in a bag slung over his shoulder, eyed her suspiciously.
"Of course not," Horace replied hastily. "We uphold the highest standards of safety at the Beddington and Sterling World of Wonders. In nearly a decade of operation, we have yet to lose a performer to a long-term injury. Sprains and the occasional break are to be expected in this business. But Lena," he continued, pointing to her like she was an exhibit at a museum, "tragically, was born this way."
"Oh my," one of the women whispered.
"Still. We count ourselves lucky to have her on board," Horace said, his voice full of false care. Lena swallowed. She wasn't afraid of Horace, but she'd always gotten the feeling that he viewed her as a never-ending bill he had to pay in order to keep her father happy. "Everyone, I apologize for the disruption. You'll find your carriage assignments on your key tags. I invite all of you to start getting settled in. As for you"-he turned to Lena, his eyes gleaming with contempt-"I trust you can keep yourself out of harm's way until the evening's festivities have concluded?"
Lena nodded and rolled her chair away, not bothering to glance back at the staring band of performers.
"What time do you think it will end?" Lena asked. It was a few hours later and her governess, Clara Smith, had just finished braiding her hair and was now tying a length of midnight-blue ribbon to the ends.
"Why d'you ask?"
Lena pointed to the book on her nightstand. "I'm at the part where Alice meets the Cheshire Cat."
Clara chuckled. "Might I suggest you forget about reading for tonight and try to make a friend or two? There's bound to be a few new children on board."
Lena frowned. "They won't like me."
"They don't know you. If you talked to them, you might be pleasantly surprised."
Lena shook her head, wondering at what point adults forgot what it was like to be young. "I won't. They'll only pretend to be nice in front of all the grown-ups. Then they'll go back to ignoring me," she explained, reaching back to feel the silky ribbon in her hair.
"That's not true."
"It is!" Lena insisted. "And grown-ups do the same. I know because Johannes pretends to like everybody, but as soon as they're gone, he starts making faces."
Clara burst out laughing and Lena smiled at her governess in the mirror. Clara wasn't anything like the stuffy, uptight governesses Lena read about in her books. She'd grown up in a place in London called Fulham and had come into Lena's life three years ago. Fed up with the subpar choice of suitors who kept calling at her family home and not wishing to waste her years of education, Clara did what most women her age would never do: she joined the circus.
Lena loved Clara. She liked the smart, tweedy skirt suits she wore and the smell of the Amami shampoo she washed her hair with every Friday. She liked the way she wrote her capital letters so neatly while completing the crossword puzzles at breakfast on the weekends. She liked that Clara had a proper job, not a circus job, and the way she sometimes paired men's trousers with bright red lipstick, her brown hair falling in soft ringlets around her face. She liked that she was young enough to chum around with Lena, often playing checkers and Snap with her in the evenings, but old enough to be firm when required.
Lena's smile vanished. She turned around to see that her father, Theo Papadopoulos, had returned from his trip into town. Lena noticed how pink his cheeks and nose were from the cool autumn air as he tugged off a pair of gray gloves.
"Papa. You're back."
"I am indeed," he said, hanging up his coat and draping his scarf over the door hook. "Clara, would you mind if I spoke with my daughter alone?"
Clara stood up. "Not at all, sir. I'll use the time to press my dress."
Theo smiled at the governess as she left, then took a seat in front of his daughter. "So? How was your afternoon?"
"Fine. I've almost finished the book."
"Already? Goodness, I wouldn't be surprised if you were the fastest reader this side of the ocean. Anything else happen?"
Lena bit her lip, wondering if she could get away with lying about the vase. But her father knew everything. It seemed to be a special kind of magic power all parents possessed, the ability to know about every little mistake their children made without having to ask. "I didn't mean for the vase to fall!" She threw her hands up in the air. "It was an accident!"
"But what were you doing outside Horace's study in the first place? Did I not leave you with enough activities?" Theo gestured to the table by her bedside, where a stack of books, coloring pages, and a compass set sat, untouched.
"I wanted to play with the other girls," Lena whispered, twisting her hands in her lap. "I'm sorry I broke it. Was it a lot of money?"
Theo leaned forward, his eyes crinkling affectionately. "It's not the money. I know you like being around those girls. But they are a few years older than you and always getting into trouble."
"They're my friends."
"Would your real friends let you take the blame for something that wasn't your fault?" Theo raised an eyebrow and Lena blushed. "Next time, please, listen to me and stay here." He waved his arms around the bedroom.
Lena glanced sadly at the shelves around her, at the books and trinkets her father had purchased. From a hand-painted dollhouse they'd found in Utrecht, to a set of brilliant watercolors from Bern, to the latest Beatrix Potter books, Lena had everything a child could have ever hoped for. So why did she feel so empty?
But not wishing to start an argument with her father-especially ahead of the dinner-she braced herself and smiled. "I promise."
Theo beamed and retrieved a silver bag from behind him, tied with strands of sparkly ribbon.
"Good. Now, every girl deserves something special before the inaugural dinner."
Lena perked up upon seeing the bag and grabbed at it, tugging off the ribbon and removing the gift.
"Oh, Papa." It was a deep red velvet headband, laced with an intricate pattern woven from thin golden thread, with three fake rubies shimmering at the center. She placed it on her head and twisted back and forth, admiring herself in the mirror. "It’s beautiful."
"You look just like a Russian tsarina," he said, bending down and planting a kiss on her forehead. "Now. You must help me decide what to wear."
The grand dining hall was the most magnificent carriage at the World of Wonders. Gargantuan chandeliers crafted from the finest Austrian crystal hung from the ceilings, making it look like diamonds were raining down on the tables. Blue paper flecked with gold leaf lined the walls and the doors that faced the inner courtyard had been unlocked so that guests could go outside. From her table, Lena watched, enthralled, as performers entered clad in traditional Russian dress; the men in white rubhakas embroidered with red, blue, and green thread and the women in colorful sarafans and glittering koloshniks perched atop their heads. The tables had been rearranged in a rectangle around the perimeter of the hall, leaving the center open for performances and speeches.
After the main courses had been served, it was tradition for Horace to give a speech. Not one to break his traditional color scheme, he was dressed in a midnight-blue tuxedo with tails and suede stripes, and he wore a matching suede top hat. As he waddled to the podium, Lena heard snickering. She turned and saw Suze trying to stifle a laugh two tables over. Laura caught Lena watching them and gave her a sympathetic wave and smile. Lena smiled back sadly then refocused her attention on Horace. Her father was right, she thought. As much as she hated to admit it, she would never be like any of the children here. It was best to not get involved with them.