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

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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.

The Tower, The Zoo, and the Tortoise

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I recently finished Julia Stuart’s The Tower, The Zoo, and the Tortoise for my book club. It was nice to have a whimsical read for once, although this book isn’t as light-hearted as the cover might lead you to believe. There’s a heavy element of loneliness and loss running through the entire book made all the more sharp when it appears by the sheer silliness that occurs at regular intervals. I have to say, Julia Stuart’s brand of comedy really worked for me. She conjures up some hilarious images–like Valerie Jennings stuck in a horse costume–that wouldn’t be out of place in classic slapstick British comedy. This is a rare book that had me laughing out loud, and even rarer one that almost brought a tear to my eye. It was probably just  dust, I swear.

Doing research for book club, I learned that the book was originally called Balthazar Jones and the Tower of London Zoo. Not a good title, but the cover was nice. While his relationship is the focus of the novel, and gets the most page space, there are at  least a dozen other characters with their own storylines. Although I must admit that I was totally in love with Balthazar and his beautiful eyes.

I liked the Reverend Septimus Drew the most. He writes erotic fiction. Not only that, but he’s been shortlisted for a Best Erotica award. I should have been paying more attention to The Vicar of Dibley, because I wasn’t sure what type of priest was allowed to date and eventually get married like Septimus Drew has hopes of doing.

He has his eyes on Ruby Dore, the barmaid, whom I liked, even if she is a bit hypocritical. When she discovers the Reverend’s writing, she gets angry with him, saying a man of God shouldn’t write things like that, etc. etc. Meanwhile, she’s pregnant with a one-night-stand’s baby. I thought it was a little odd that she would get mad at the one nice man in her life for simply doing what he likes to do. A little erotica never hurt anyone.

Anyway, I’ll write more about the book after book club. I want to say that I also enjoyed all the historical references, which must be true because they’re too crazy to ever be made up. The fact that history is so ridiculous (one Tower prisoner was executed with a mercury enema) makes the quirky fictional characters in the book all the more real. Also, it’s filled with some of the cutest animals ever. The Etruscan Shrew is my new favorite mammal.

Smallest Mammal in the World! picture from thefeaturedcreature.com