Perhaps every human being was a freak. Hadn’t he read somewhere that every person has at least a handful of damaged genes? That all humans embody a myriad of nature’s mistakes?
Meet Leon (stage name: Clockwork Man), a nervous, introverted thirty-year-old man with a brass heart; Kathryn (stage name: Lady Lamb), a brash, sexy woman covered almost entirely with black, tightly furled wool; and Christos (stage name: Seraphiel), a vain performance artist who plays a winged god with the help of ceramic implants inserted between his shoulder blades. These are The Wonders, three extraordinary people whose medical treatments have tested the limits of the human body. When they are brought together by a canny entrepreneur, their glamorous, genre-defying, twenty-first-century circus act becomes a global sensation. But what makes them objects of fascination also places them in danger.
With warmth, humor, and astonishing insight, Paddy O’Reilly has written a wonderful novel that will appeal to fans of Sara Gruen’s Ape House, Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, and Teddy Wayne’s The Love Song of Jonny Valentine—or anyone who’s ever questioned the nature of fame, our kinship with the animal kingdom, and the delicate balancing act of life and death.
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|Publisher:||Washington Square Press|
|Product dimensions:||5.31(w) x 8.25(h) x 0.80(d)|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
LEON WAS TWENTY-SIX when the true fragility of his body revealed itself. He died for the first time. There was no flying, no tunnel. He didn’t see a light. He died, and a few minutes later he regained consciousness on a gritty carpeted floor under a pair of small hands pounding his breast as a female voice counted aloud. He opened his eyes. A male face loomed over him, so close that all he could see were stubby black mustache hairs sprouting from the pores of an upper lip and the rose-pink flesh of the mouth. The man was pinching Leon’s nostrils shut, about to give him the kiss of life.
Leon felt a grunt of exhaust wheeze from him as if a knee had pressed into his rib cage. He sucked desperately to get breath into his chest. Every cell right out to his skin lit up, an instantaneous electric surge through flesh and bone.
The owner of the rosy lips fell backward onto the floor, muttering, “Jesus fucking Christ.”
The firm’s first-aid officer, the woman who had been pumping his chest, shot out a laugh.
“My god, he’s back.” The armpits of her green cotton blouse were dark with damp. Clear snot trailed from her nose to her lip. “Leon? Leon?”
He moaned and rolled his eyes toward her, still unable to speak, and she laughed harder, as though the laughing was an expulsion of something trapped inside. She wiped her nose on her sleeve, rubbed her hands down her skirt and rocked back on her heels, staring at the ceiling, laughing that seesaw braying laugh Leon had never heard from her before. His head lolled to the other side, and he saw his work colleague, the one who had been breathing spent air into his body, kneeling with head bowed as if in prayer.
He had died and been brought back to life in an office. He remembered a phrase: Death be not proud, though some have called thee mighty and dreadful.
“The ambulance is on its way, mate.” Leon’s colleague punched himself in the chest, a frantic gesture of relief. “Jesus, you gave us a fright. Fuck.”
The next month he died again. Seven months later, again. Each time less mighty, less dreadful: his deaths were becoming modern and mean. Life tethered to the medical industry had begun. In a year’s time, when his ailing heart muscle had given out, they transplanted a new heart inside him, a heart removed from a healthy young woman whose brain had been unwired by a fall onto concrete. After an uneasy truce, his recalcitrant body began its assault on the invading organ. No quantity of immunosuppressants would convince his body to make peace with the muscular pump that could save it. His body and the heart battled on together in their bad marriage until he could barely walk.
By then he was living with his mother in the country. His sister traveled up from the city with her two children. The boy, his nephew, barreled out to the backyard and began tearing around the garden. The cat had bolted as soon as he arrived. Leon’s five-year-old niece came and sat next to him while his sister perched on the arm of the couch, her legs twined, hands resting in her lap.
“So how are you, Leon? Mum says you’re improving a little.”
He stared at her, amazed. “I’m dying, Sue.”
“Oh, Leon, always the pessimist. Let me get a cup of tea first, then we can chat.”
Once she had gone into the kitchen, his niece lifted her wide eyes to him.
“Are you really dying?”
“Where will you go when you die?”
He guessed it must be time to think about that. He didn’t believe in heaven and choirs of angels, or a sulfurous hell with eternal punishment. He didn’t believe he would be reborn into another body. He was perfectly confident in what he did not believe and unable to fill the resulting void with any positive belief. Which left nothing.
“I think I stop being. I won’t be here anymore but I’m not sure I go anywhere.”
She lowered her gaze and played with the hem of her dress. He was sorry to disappoint her.
“Maybe I’ll go to heaven.” That was what people did to children. They told comforting lies. His mother had told him the same thing, except he had never believed her. She had described it in the same singsong voice the third-grade teacher used to recite the times tables, as if something repeated enough times must surely be true.
“It’s okay if you don’t go anywhere,” she said. “It’s only that I wanted to visit you.”
Two weeks later he was bedridden, unable to eat, breathing with the labored effort of an aged man. The hospital still had no suitable donor. They rushed him in, implanted a pump beside his failing heart to keep him alive and sent him home again to wait and hope for a new heart.
It seemed there was an epidemic of heart disease. The waiting list was longer than ever. Leon had drifted to the bottom because this was to be his second heart. His body had already rejected one. New kinds of hearts were being grown in laboratories and artificial hearts that could last thirty years were at trial stage but not close enough. Preparing to die was his most logical course of action.
Until the call came.
He had to choose. One choice was risk, it was illegal, it was madness. His other choice was waiting for an impossible donation while he was being eaten up with fear and rage. And then dying anyway.
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for The Wonders includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
“The Wonders travels deep into questions about the contemporary world that have concerned and moved me for many years. I wanted to ask: How are we to live in this brave new world? How are we to know one another?”
From the author of the “funny, irreverent, and highly entertaining” (Liane Moriarty, author of Big Little Lies) The Fine Color of Rust comes a brilliant new novel about a misfit trio who become instant international reality stars, probing the nature of celebrity, disability, and the value of human life.
Meet Leon (stage name: Clockwork Man), a nervous, introverted thirty-year-old man with a brass heart; Kathryn (stage name: Lady Lamb), a brash, sexy woman covered almost entirely with black, tightly furled wool; and Christos (stage name: Seraphiel), a vain performance artist who plays a winged god with the help of ceramic implants inserted between his shoulder blades. These are the Wonders, three extraordinary people whose medical treatments have tested the limits of the human body. When a canny entrepreneur brings them together, their glamorous, genre-defying, twenty-first-century circus act becomes a global sensation. But what makes them objects of fascination also places them in danger.
With warmth, humor, and astonishing insight, Paddy O’Reilly has written a wonderful novel for anyone who’s ever questioned the nature of fame, our kinship with the animal kingdom, and the delicate balancing act of life and death.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. The Wonders asks what makes someone a celebrity. Why do we follow the exploits of celebrities?
2. Paddy O’Reilly has created a world that seems very much like the world we live in now, but with characters whose bodies have been radically altered. According to much of her research, some of these procedures are not so different from some surgeries people undergo today. What do you think will happen with medical technology in the future?
3. The animals in The Wonders are retired circus performers that have been given sanctuary. Consider how in today’s world some animals are used for scientific research and commercial product testing, and yet others are our beloved pets. What are your thoughts on our treatment of animals?
4. Leon is a shy man who must learn to present a confident public face when he is thrust into the world as a Wonder. We all have places where we ‘curate’ our image, such as Facebook or LinkedIn or online dating sites. How has the internet changed the way we present ourselves?
5. Kathryn has been reviled, then both adored and feared. O’Reilly has stated in an interview that the reaction to Kathryn is specific to her gender. What do you think O’Reilly meant? Why do you think Kathryn is treated differently because she’s a woman?
6. In The Wonders, Christos uses his own body to express his artistic vision. Average people are also permanently altering their bodies to express themselves more than ever before. Why have body modifications, such as tattoos and piercings and implants, become so popular?
7. Leon ponders the disability activists who questioned the role of the Wonders, asking himself, “Were he and Kathryn and Christos, the beautiful monsters, making everything worse for the different ones who were not beautiful?” What do you think? Why do the disability activists take issue with the Wonders?
8. Public figures, like the Wonders, are always the subject of gossip and rumors about their private lives. Were you surprised by any of the rumors that the Wonders found themselves subjected to? If so, which ones and why?
9. The novel explores many ways in which we look at one another. Sometimes we are encouraged to look; sometimes we are told not to stare. Why do you think the public is so interested in looking at the Wonders? Were you surprised by their daily lives given their notoriety?
10. The three Wonders begin the book as disparate people thrown together by chance. In what ways do their relationships change? Do you think the Wonders function as a family? Explain your reasons.
11. Leon is a complex character and is oftentimes conflicted when making decisions. Despite his reluctance to speak to the media and his doubts about Rhona, why do you think Leon agrees to travel to Melbourne to meet with her? What do you think he expects from their first meeting? What is so different about Rhona and the possibilities she offers him that makes Leon want to work with her?
12. At one point, Kathryn refers to Leon as the Tin Man. What parallels can you see in The Wonders and The Wizard of Oz? What other parallels can you make among Christos, Kathryn, and Rhona?
13. The Wonders raises questions about what it means to be normal. Are Leon, Christos, and Kathryn typically normal? How do you define normal?
14. What do you think O’Reilly means when she calls Kathryn “a wonder of the consciousness”? Kathryn’s body is transformed too, so what sets her apart from Leon and Christos, who she describes as mere “wonders of the body”?
15. Leon, having nearly died twice already, lives with acute awareness of his mortality; it’s not until the end of the book that he seems to really live. How would you feel and what would you do if you knew you didn’t have much time left to live?