Before you read this post, there is something you should know about me. I have an incredibly low tolerance for quirkiness, sweetness, cuteness, and sentimentality. I can tolerate all of these things in small doses, but usually I need a bit of bite to keep my teeth from hurting. Something like a spoonful of acid to make the sugar go down. However, I also know that I am in the minority on this score. So when I complain that a book is overly cute, too sentimental, ridiculously quirky, I know that it is my own personal complaint and that the book I’m griping about may be just perfect for everyone else. The Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise by Julia Stuart (Balthazar Jones and the Tower of London Zoo in the UK) is just such a book.
I received this book from the LibraryThing Early Review program, and I was delighted to get it. It’s one of the few times I’ve gotten my first choice on the list. Although I love my sad ponderous tomes, I do enjoy something light and fun once in a while, and this book about the (fictional) return of the Royal Menagerie to the Tower of London looked like just the charming sort of thing I might enjoy.
The book focuses on Balthazar Jones, one of the Yeoman Warders (Beefeaters) who live and work at the Tower of London. Balthazar and his wife Hebe lost their son Milo years ago, and their marriage has struggled ever since. Balthazar and Hebe are surrounded by a wacky cast of characters. These include Reverend Septimus Drew, chaplain of the chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula, which is located on the Tower grounds. When the Reverend isn’t grumbling about the rats that nibble on his cassock while he’s at prayer, he’s secretly writing erotic (but principled!) novels.
There’s also Valerie Jennings, Hebe’s coworker at the London Underground lost and found, and Valerie’s secret admirer Arthur Catnip, who brings her novels about stout intellectual women conquering serpents, speaking at Parliament, and fending off admirers. Arthur is too shy to admit that he’s bringing them as gifts to Valerie, so he always claims he found them on the Underground.
Stuart peppers the narrative with lots of facts about the Tower of London and its history. I visited the Tower on my first trip to London three years ago, and it does have a fascinating history, but Stuart too often shares the story with awkward fact-dumps that don’t flow elegantly into the narrative. It works well when, for example, she describes Milo’s first day at the Tower and all the scary stories the Tower children told him. However, in the opening chapters, the fact-dumps occur every time a new part of the Tower is mentioned. They come across as glaring “look I did my research” signals.
Worse than the fact-dumps are the quirkiness dumps. The Underground Lost and Found office is home to an inflatable sex doll on whose wrist Hebe and Valerie keep a roll of tape after having lost it one too many times. The food at the Tower Cafe is inedible, as we learn every time the cafe is mentioned. The Tower doctor misses a character’s birth because he was embroiled in a vicious Monopoly game that culminated in his opponent swallowing the boot, the doctor’s preferred playing piece.
Almost every anecdote or incident has some silly twist that seems calculated to amuse. And that’s the trouble; it feels calculated. And repetitive, given Stuart’s propensity to repeat her jokes. I think the storyline involving the death of Milo is meant to offset the goofiness, but that veers toward a cloying sort of pathos, which ends up being jarring—and again, calculated, although calculated to elicit tears instead of chuckles.
I finally gave up on the book when Balthazar went to the London Zoo to oversee the transfer of the animals to the Tower and the keeper of the marmosets was in the ladies’ room weeping because she couldn’t coax her charges out of their enclosure. Yes, that’s right, the keepers at the London Zoo are driven to tears because they cannot handle animals, which is their job, which they are highly trained to do. I know I’m being a curmudgeon to complain about a small detail like this in a book with a patently preposterous premise, but this detail shows how hard Stuart is trying to be silly, without thinking about the logic of the story. The trick, I think, to pulling off a preposterous premise is surrounding it with believable details, and the details here are as ridiculous as the premise. The piling on of ridiculousness takes the book over the top.
So at page 110 of 304, I’ve decided I’m done. It’s just not worth my time to continue. I don’t hate it exactly, but I’m trying not to waste my time on books I’m not enjoying, and I’m enjoying this less and less as I read on. I’m sure, however, that others will like it. President Obama took it with him on vacation. It’s just not the book for me.