Toads' Museum of Freaks and Wonders by Goldie Goldbloom
Once again, I’ve judged a book by its cover, and I was wrong. After anxiously reading the first few chapters of Goldie Goldbloom's beautiful and oddly-titled first novel, Toads' Museum of Freaks and Wonders, I’ll admit that I was pretty disappointed. I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting, but it was somewhere along the lines of a cross between Arnold Lobel’s innocent yet slightly creepy Frog and Toad and the delightfully dark circus-y tale Wonder When You’ll Miss Me by Amanda Davis. Fortunately, I overreacted; my initial disillusionment with the lack of honest-to-goodness, can’t-take-your-eyes-off-them freaks in the book quickly faded after I finally became ensnared in Goldbloom’s particular web of freakishness.
While this isn't Geek Love, the novel definitely has its share of oddities and eccentrics. First off, pianist-turned-rancher's-wife Gin Toad is an albino. In Gin’s Western Australian hometown in the 1940s, her shocking appearance makes her feel like a freak, a feeling that is frequently reinforced by the way she’s treated, by her family and strangers alike. Gin's porcelain white skin and flowing white hair would be enough to keep her feeling isolated from her judgmental neighbors, but she has more than her appearance counting against her. Her husband, who is referred to by most simply by his last name, Toad, is also a local freak. A small, delicate man and a devoted collector of Victorian corsetry, Toad is very different from the rough, strapping ranchers he tries -- and fails -- to imitate.
Aside from Gin and Toad’s obvious aberrations from the norm, the real wonders that Goldbloom puts on display are of the everyday variety: the ineffable power of music, the exhilaration of first love, the many facets of desire, and the subtle tension between a mother and her children, among others. It's a testament to Goldbloom's craft that a multitude of small moments of intense emotion are the truly wondrous elements that shine amidst the nearly Harlequinesque events of the novel. Gin and Toad’s marriage is based on the fact that Toad rescued Gin from a mental institution with his proposal. When Toad walked in on Gin playing the piano in the asylum’s recreation room, he was captivated by her playing (and her tight bottom, which reminded him of a young boy). Although Gin is less than thrilled with the prospect of being Toad's wife, she chooses the limited life he offers, rather than staying in an institution.
After resigning herself to a new life running the ranch with Toad, her small world is turned upside down by the entrance of two strapping Italian POWs that Toad has elected to host as farm workers during their exile. Gin and Toad are each entranced by the exotic Anthony and John, and while the ensuing drama is not quite bodice-ripping, the sensual turmoil that invades the ranch is palpable. Simply calling this novel a romance would do it an injustice, though. While it is a love story and definitely has its share of lusty glances, it's also a sophisticated tale of suburban ennui, set in an unlikely place. Gin is a gifted pianist; her incredible talent and yearning for music and its freedom and romance fill the parts of her that Toad desperately, angrily wants to see devoted to her husband and children. Her tragic past and stubborn decision to live as a rancher’s wife have forced her to suppress her unpractical feelings. Gin's distance from her family is a form of self-preservation that isn't challenged until the arrival of the POWs. Anthony in particular brings with him the romance of Italian opera and art and the possibility of a deeper connection, and through their relationship, Gin begins to imagine a bigger life outside of the suffocating ranch.
I can't say enough just how much I enjoyed Goldbloom's writing. Her portrait of Gin is nuanced and subtle, yet vivid and dramatic at the same time. The story is somehow brilliantly over the top and still completely believable and relatable. Goldbloom's artfully reserved prose is the perfect counterpoint to her complex characters, who simmer with submerged passions. Likewise, Goldbloom's descriptions of Australia itself are evocative in a way that puts even Baz Luhrmann's Australia to shame. The book was first published in Australia under the title The Paperbark Shoe, and while this title may be more accurate, I really like the absurdity of the American title, which, surprisingly, is actually quite appropriate. The novel won the 2008 AWP Prize, and while I'm not sure what weight this prize carries among its lengthier-titled award peers, Toad’s Museum of Freaks and Wonders will no doubt keep visitors gawking in awe.
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