Book Club Recap: The Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise

It was unanimous. Our book club loved Julia Stuart’s The Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise. After a few too many heavy, depressing, ponderous reads in a row (The Thirteenth Tale, Fifth Business, not that there’s anything wrong with those!) this charming novel was exactly what we needed. It’s a really good book to read around Valentine’s Day, too, with its over-arching themes of love, loneliness, and loss. Ah, the three Ls. And I love reading books with a British accent. Plus, cute animals!

The Geoffroy's Marmoset is from Brazil. (Image from Brandywine Zoo)

Why yes, they can walk on water. These basilisks are also known as Jesus Christ lizards. (Image from Strange Animals)

Balthazar Jones steals one of these bearded pigs from the Zoo. It plays with a grapefruit as though it's a ball. So adorable! (Image from London Zoo, maybe this was the one he took!)

Balthazar Jones bonds with the wandering albatross in the book. Both are longing for their mates, whom they have been separated from. (Image from BBC)

A group favorite was Mrs. Cook, Balthazar Jones’s 180-something-year-old tortoise. “Generations of Joneses had completely forgotten [she] was a tortoise. She was regarded more as a loose-bowelled geriatric relative with a propensity for absconding, such a protracted habit that nobody ever realised she had vanished until weeks later, as her sedate trajectory across the room was still burnt on their memories.” (49)

Anyway, the book was an utter delight. We had so much fun and laughter at book club, just sharing passages and guffawing. Sure, I was operating on about four hours’ sleep, but I still would have had a few good belly laughs were I well-rested.

Despite all the humor, the book is definitely deeper than the cover would lead you to believe. All the characters, even the animals, experience a variety of profound feelings of longing, loss of a loved one, or sorrowful loneliness.

Plus, Julia Stuart’s way with words is just phenomenal. She constructs rich, vivid, and many times hilarious scenes without excessive wordage or description. Even her repetition–always using a character’s first and last name, always referring to certain object the exact same way–served to just enrich a scene for me, and not annoy me.

The Tower of London backdrop, and all the really bizarre historical facts that get recounted throughout the book (Sir Thomas Overbury executed by mercury enema; Mary Toft, the woman who gave birth to rabbits), serve to make the sheer quirkiness of the characters seem almost normal. Oh, Valerie Jennings is stuck inside a horse costume and trying to open the fridge with her hoof? Just another normal day in the London Underground Lost Property Office.

My favorite character was Rev. Septimus Drew, who writes erotic in his spare time under the nom de plume Vivienne Ventress. He uses all the royalties to support a home for retired prostitutes, where the gentle ex-hookers grow luscious carrots that they sell to local restaurants.

Anyway, this book is such an enjoyable treat, I really would recommend it to everyone. Quirky without being cute, emotional without being manipulative, and with so many odd history facts that you’ll definitely want to share with friends make it a must-read, and I rarely say that.

I can count on one hand the number of books out book club unanimously enjoyed in the last two-three years: The Help, Stephen King’s The Stand (believe it or not), all but one of us loved The Thirteenth Tale. So this book is definitely an achievement to appeal to all our finicky tastes.

There are few books I would recommend to anyone and everyone, but if your reading tastes range beyond military fiction and serial killer true crime, you would probably love this book.

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