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Book Review: The Life She Was Given


The Life She Was Given by Ellen Marie Wiseman (Kensington Books, 2017) is basically what would happen if Water for Elephants was rewritten as a Greek tragedy.

The first three-quarters of the novel have a very similar feel: a young person, without anything but their wits and the clothes on their back, is suddenly thrust into the life of a traveling circus. They make some friends, fall in love, and develop a special bond with the pachyderm performers. Familiar, right? But who doesn’t love a good period piece about learning to love and finding acceptance?

That is the direction I thought this story was going. But man, oh man, was I WRONG.

I guess I really should have suspected that it was going to end badly based on the flashback sequences. This is one of those mysteries that the author tells you the ending from the very beginning, but the beauty is in seeing the story unfold. There are two separate timelines featuring two different protagonists, both incredibly compelling in their own ways. It’s really a testament to the author’s skill at characterization that you feel for these women so deeply. The story structure, setting, and character development are the strengths of this novel.

And then you get to the ending.

I felt so hopeful that everything was going to come together beautifully, only to have that rug of contentment viciously ripped out from under me in the last 40 pages. Wiseman leaves you with about a thousand questions and very little in the way of resolution. The ending makes sense logically, but it is such a dramatic tonal shift that I felt like I had emotional whiplash.

You very abruptly find out that the story arc has really been just a big, mean circle this whole time, a perfect example of complete poetic IN-justice.

Definitely don’t read the last few chapters in public unless you want people to see you ugly-crying. You will feel genuine grief for these characters, and it will not be pretty.


Please enjoy this book for the rich setting, the fascinating historical tidbits, and the sweet romantic subplots.

And then afterwards, once you’ve picked up the pieces of your broken heart and shattered expectations, go read Water for Elephants again to make yourself feel better.

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