A guest review by Erastes
A colorful novel of the circus world of the 1940s and 1950s, rich in detail, bursting with power and emotion. Mario Santelli, a member of the famous flying Santelli family, is a great trapeze artist. Tommy Zane is his protege.
As naturally and gracefully as they soar through the air, the two flyers find themselves falling in love. Mario and Tommy share sweet stolen moments of passion, but the real intensity of their relationship comes from their total devotion to one another and to their art.
As public figures in a conservative era, they cannot reveal their love. But they will never renounce it.
As a fan of circus stories, and someone who has been so since a little kid, this was something I was really looking forward to. I had very few preconceptions, as I didn’t know what era it was set in or whether it had a romance ending, or anything. I love films such as Trapeze (I saw the homoerotic subtext in there, even before I discovered gay romance) and The Greatest Show on Earth so as I say I was happy to jump in to The Catch Trap.
And overall I wasn’t disappointed. Tommy Zane is the young son of lion tamers who realises early on that he doesn’t want to follow in his father’s footsteps and train the big cats, he’s always wanted to fly–and before the Santellis arrive at the second-rate circus his family is working in–he hasn’t been given the chance. He has, however, had a lot of experience in many related disciplines; he helps out with the aerial ballet, does tumbling and generally helps out wherever needed. When watching one of the flyers working, he’s invited up onto the practice rig, and his life changes forever.
The story is–at its core–the tale of the romance between Tommy and Mario, and this takes many years to spin out, and has inevitable ups and downs, but it’s a lot more than that too. Mario is working on a triple somersault, something that had, at this time (1940s/1950s) only been done by a very few people. In fact, it was, before someone did it, considered an impossible feat.
A note should be added here about the history. In a lengthy foreword, the author explains that she decided for various reasons to make the history of the trapeze and in particular, the triple somersault, an alternate history. I can see her concerns, considering the homosexual plotline, but I wish she hadn’t done it, as I always like to be informed when reading, saying to myself “I did not know that!” and as she’s invented the first proponent of the triple, and the men who are performing it, I didn’t get that kick of real history.
After a while, Tommy is invited to train properly and moves in with the Santelli family, a vast, bickering exuberant bunch. The family Santelli is a wonderful invention, from the matriarch down to the children. The family are all flying mad, and are held together by discipline and tradition going back fifty years. At times I found the endless bickering and arguing repetitive in the extreme, and there’s sometimes too much dialogue which goes nowhere, and could easily have been cut, but this doesn’t spoil the story overall. Like all families, there’s good and bad, and acceptance, when it does come, comes from an unexpected source, and rejection and bigotry also comes from a source you don’t see coming.
Tommy is fifteen when he’s first approached sexually by Mario, so people who find anyone having sex under 18 as distasteful are going to want to avoid this. I admit I found it mildly disturbing–not because of Tommy’s youth even in the times that this was set–but because Mario’s first approach came over as little more than “interfering” with Tommy when he was in no position to object (they were sitting in the back of a moving car). Previous to this they had been sharing a bed, and arms had been put around each other “in sleep” and “unconscious” kisses exchanged, but this was passed off by Tommy as that Mario was asleep and didn’t know what he was doing. It didn’t matter to me that Tommy was accepting of this back seat advance, Mario knew that Tommy could hardly scream “get off me!” and so in this case I did, as I said, find it a little creepy, even though Tommy didn’t mind.
This is actually echoed by Mario, as the first part of their relationship is peppered with a lot of guilt and disgust on his part as he castigates himself for having “corrupted” Tommy and is justifiably scared of what would happen if it was found out, as he’s about 8 years older, he knows that Tommy would not–in all likelihood–have anything really bad happen to him, but it would be jail for Mario, and that’s somewhere he’s been before.
At times I found Mario pretty hard going, and I think that if I was Tommy I would have given up on him pretty early on, but Tommy is in love and there’s little stronger than a teenager’s first love. Their relationship is pretty stormy; inevitable really, considering the pressure cooker it’s kept in–not being able to be openly affectionate in any way, keeping it secret despite sharing a room. Both of them have hot tempers, Mario in particular, and this is another reason why I lost respect for him, because his own self-loathing breaks into violence with Tommy on more than one occasion.
Tommy is a little difficult to get to know–he goes through a lot, but because the author rarely lets us into anyone’s head, it’s hard to fathom. He leaves home for the Santellis and hardly looks back, or thinks about his parents, and even when a tragedy hits him–one that I know would have poleaxed me for weeks, it’s hardly mentioned after the occurrence. I’m sure the author didn’t mean to make him shallow, she’s probably concentrating on other aspects of the plot, but at times he comes across as such.
It’s very much Tommy’s story–and we follow it from his underage crush, to the state where he’s grown up and out from Mario’s aggressive and over-moody wing and begins to doubt whether he can live with this man, this secret and this family any more, and what place he’ll ever have in Mario’s life, and how to achieve it.
What I was a little disappointed with, is that there’s not enough of the life of the circus in the description. There’s a good deal of the trapeze of course, and I learned a lot–the Catch Trap for example is the Catcher’s Trapeze–but there wasn’t enough of the daily routine, little description of the tearing down and the rebuilding of the circus, few interractions with all the varied people who must frequent such a place, and I would have liked to have seen more of that.
Anyone expecting an easy, loving romance should be aware, it’s simply not that. There are very few scenes where the couple are comfortable and sweet with each other, and that’s just how it should be. It’s often an uncomfortable read–a book that keeps you on the edge of your seat, not only with the fear of the discovery of their relationship, or for queerbashing purposes, but because of the very real danger that the flyers face, every time they climb the ladders onto the rig. I doubt Ms Bradley ever flew, but she’s certainly done her research.
I’m slicing a star off from the review for the beginning love scene, and for the uneven and often repetitive writing. It’s a large book, and would have benefited from a bit of a chop here and there. But as a stimulating and thoughtful romance, forged in danger and cemented in the air, it’s certainly a book that will keep you thinking about the protagonists, long after you’ve finished.
What’s unbelievable, in these days of a gay romance boom, that this book is out of print, and copies aren’t that easy to come by, and often are hugely expensive, but if you fancy a good read, then keep trying, you’ll pick one up eventually. Despite the missing star, I do consider this to be an Essential Read for anyone serious about writing gay historical fiction.