416 pages; Viking Adult
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A Pygmalion story with a mystery twist, Zimmerman's second novel (after The Orphanmaster) takes us on an over-the-top romp through 1870s America, courtesy of its titular heroine. Our deeply unreliable narrator, 22-year-old medical student Hugo Delegate, and his robber-baron family rescue a ravishing, raven-haired feral girl, Bronwyn, from a freak show in the Wild West town of Virginia City, Nevada, and set out to turn her into New York society's most envied debutante. It's not long, however, before Hugo notices that his adopted sister's male admirers often end up dead, mutilated in ways that remind him of the razor-sharp metal claws that Bronwyn used as her sideshow stage props. Is she a brutal murderer? Or could Hugo himself be responsible—a man who suffers from the occasional "involuntary excursion into a violent mental twilight" and, oh, has a thing for knives? The pace sometimes falters, as Zimmerman dips in and out of a cast of thousands, ranging from real-life figures to some admirably imagined eccentrics, and shows off her considerable historical research. But stick with this haute penny dreadful and be rewarded with a rip-roaring conclusion that it's hard to see coming. Consider this the compulsively readable love child of Edith Wharton and Edgar Allan Poe.
— Susan Welsh