Jamie Ford incorporated some interesting historical details into his novel, Love and Other Consolation Prizes. Book-ended by the two World’s Fairs held in Seattle, Washington, Ford follows the life of Yung Kuhn Ai at the turn of the twentieth century as his impoverished mother in China sells him to a gentleman who guarantees a better life in America. Yung journeys across the ocean in the bowels of a ship gathered with other children “bought” for distribution on the North American West Coast, including numerous young Asian girls. Ford provides a fascinating glimpse at the careless disregard of ship owners willing to peddle human flesh, but also ready to sacrifice profit by dumping their human cargo into Dead Man’s Bay when the Custom Agents come sniffing around. Yung is caught up in such an act, but miraculously survives, emerging from the near death experience to begin life anew as Ernest Young. Brought up as an orphan and sensitive to his second class status, Ernest, whose absentee father was a missionary, never quite fits in, so when given a choice, he asks to be relocated. His benefactress, Mrs Irvine, uses this query as an means to pawn him off as a prize at the 1906 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, but to her chagrin, instead of being won by a family, the winning ticket is in the hands of Madame Flora, the owner of the Tenderloin Brothel. Despite this questionable new venue, Ernest finds a home amongst the women, finally developing a sense of belonging. Befriended by the downstairs staff, he falls in love with the two girls his age, Maisie and Fawn, with the trio spending time together in childish pursuits (although the call of the upstairs ladies – a gentile bunch despite their occupation – is ever present).
While this concept peaked my interest, especially since much if it paralleled real events, I was disappointed in the execution. The back and forth between 1962 and 1909 distracted me from developing a connection to the characters as the story unfolded. While I am not a prude, I didn’t appreciate denigrating the action of the Suffragettes who were sincere in their efforts to keep husbands sober and faithful to their wives. Mrs. Irvine, a representative of the Washington Women’s Home Society, became a nonsensical caricature whose good hearted attempts of charity were cast as evil (although I must admit that the raffling of Ernest could not be considered a Christian Act of Kindness). Luckily a life of prostitution in the red light district, even one at such a high class establishment as The Tenderloin Brothel with the culturally groomed Gibson Girls, was not overly glamorized. The author ensured that the picture included some warts intermixed with the grandeur of the surroundings. Despite the altruistic tendencies of Madam Flora, ultimately the girl’s bodies were sold for profit, a “profession” which is still at best questionable in polite society (unless you live in a place like Las Vegas or the Netherlands) and at worst a part of the current human trafficking crisis facing not only the world, but specifically the United States – whether the woman is “willing” or not.
While I’m sure that the residents of Seattle appreciated Ford’s use of specific geographical features of their hometown, there was just too much information to keep the interest of the average reader. On the plus side, I did enjoy the description of the Seattle Expos in both 1909 and 1962 (enabling me to make mental comparisons to the 1965 Worlds Fair in New York City – which I attended in my own youth). While I give the author kudos for the obvious research of life at the beginning of the 20th century, there was just too much name dropping, becoming almost preachy, as if the author felt it necessary to present every pertinent fact he discovered about the era. In his old age, Ernest was very active, attending numerous shows and concerts with his “Gracie”, as well as dining at his favorite restaurants. However, unless these activities directly impacted the story, it was simply irrelevant trivia. These miscellaneous features along with repetitive details dragged the story down. As Ernest looked back he described what had happened in his past, specifics which we had just read about in one of the flashbacks. On occasion there were some pertinent tidbits, such as the fact he became a naturalized citizen, but these comments were more an aside rather than a prominent part of the story. The “mystery” involving which girl he married, Maizie or Fahn, was an unnecessary distraction. However, the actual story of Ernest traveling from China to the United States had a lot of potential and so I focused on that aspect of the story. If only the author had edited out the extraneous and expanded on what occurred between 1902 and 1909 to 1912, this might have been a more compelling story.
Three stars and a thank you to Netgalley for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.