Book Reviews: The Tower, The Zoo and The Tortoise

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Tower, The Zoo and the Tortoise
by Julia Stuart

Balthazar Jones is a Beefeater (Yeoman Warder) who lives and works at the Tower of London. He and his wife Hebe lost their only son, Milo, a few years before the book begins. Trapped in a cycle of grief, the two struggle to understand what’s happened and how they can go on living without their child.

Stuart manages to temper the heartbreak in this story with a sweet humor and quiet devotion. Hebe works in the London Underground's Lost Property Office and spends her days reuniting people with things they’ve lost, yet ironically she can do nothing to get back what she’s lost.

It’s not a book that pulls you in with the first paragraph, instead the characters grow on you and you find yourself rooting for them. I recognized their flaws and struggles and could identify with some of their pain. In one section Hebe is discussing her son’s death with someone and says this…

"I can't imagine what you've been through," he said.

"Some people think they can," she said. "You'd be surprised how many bring up the death of their pet."

As absurd as that sounds, I’ve had people do that to me on multiple occasions!

I think that the book could have done without some of the subplots. I never felt attached to the Rev. Setimus Drew, his love interest Ruby the barmaid or the Ravenmaster. I think their stories hindered the main plot up unnecessarily. There were just too many different threads and those could easily be axed.

I did enjoy Hebe’s coworker Valerie Jennings and her budding relationship with Arthur Catnip. They provided a good balance to the Joneses tragedy.

The title refers to the Queen’s decision to reopen the Royal Menagerie at the Tower of London. Balthazar is put in charge of corralling all of the animals and, of course, chaos ensues. This plot feels very secondary to Balthazar’s relationship with his wife. Their estrangement is what grounds the whimsical elements in the book.

Hebe and Balthazar made this book worthwhile in my opinion. I loved reading about their past, their son and their frustration. I would recommend this and am curious to see what Stuart comes up with next.

“There was a pause during which the two strangers held on to each other through the silence.”

** I received this book from the Doubleday Publishing House


Jenners said...

I've always found this cover so charming, but it does sounds like a book that has two different things going on -- comedy and tragedy. And I can imagine people equating the death of a child with the death of a pet.

Vaishnavi said...

It's a beautiful cover. I would love to read this book and the fact that people bring up their pets while talking to a grieving parent is just ridiculous!

Jeanne said...

Ridiculous maybe, but it's human nature to try to generalize from one kind of loss to another. The quotation makes me like the idea of reading this book better.

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

I agree the cover is great, but I don't think it really fits the mood of the book. It made me think it would be a much lighter read than it was.

Jeanne - I think you're right. People are just trying to connect and understand your loss, but it's definitely not a good way to show sympathy.

S. Krishna said...

Eeek - I'm not a fan of too many subplots, but I definitely want to read this one. Thanks for the review.