The Catch Trap

Title:  The Catch Trap
Author:  Marion Zimmer-Bradley
Buy link:
Publisher:  Random House
Genre:  M/M Historical Romance
Length:  589 Pages
Rating:  4  stars out of 5

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.



  • I’m quite surprised about you feeling that it didn’t describe enough of the daily life of the circus. I’ve owned this book for a very long time – got my copy as soon as it was published in Germany, not knowing what it was about, I just liked the cover – and have read it about a dozen times. I think it was my very first m/m novel and I didn’t know then that such existed. But what stayed with me most vividly were those descriptions of circus life. I especially remember the very poetic way MZB described the rigging and de-rigging of the big tent and how they moved heavy loads with help of the elephants and such. How they all went to distribute flyers and the long and lonely trips between engagements. In short: I never was a fan of the circus, but after reading this book I wanted to run away with one! 😉

    • I have to say that I don’t recall any of that description – perhaps I missed it, don’t remember mention of elephants at all!

  • Thanks, Erastes, for the in-depth review. I wanted to read this one forever and your review just encouraged me further to do so.
    I’ve been in search of an acceptable (in terms of costs and condition) used copy quite some time now but no such luck as yet. I’ll keep searching, I guess. It seems to be worthwhile. 🙂

  • Erastes
    I’m so glad that you liked it. I would not have been able to do justice to the review the way you did. You capture the book and the life in the circus (what there was of it) so eloquently
    The underage sex should not surprise anyone who reads historical novels or those set in the 40s and 50s.

  • Great to see a review for this book. I found this early on in my gay fiction reading, and it’s one of my favourites.
    Each time I read it, I find new things that I missed during my first readings. There’s so much to take in. I’m surprised you say there’s not much circus routine. I haven’t read it for a while, but my memory is of quite a bit of that. Tommy interacts with the girls of the acrobat troupe, and there’s a bit about him working with the clowns as well, I think.
    It’s strange that I don’t remember worrying about Tommy’s first sexual experience, because Australian laws are very strong about that. I guess it’s because I read the book before those laws came into effect. I don’t remember feeling uncomfortable about it at all, because Tommy seemed quite mature, and didn’t appear to be taken advantage of.
    It is a pretty angsty book, with Mario being abusive and treating Tommy poorly. That was hard to read. I’m glad Tommy stood up to him in the end, and that eventually they found a way to live together that worked for them both.

  • As someone who has owned this book forever, I have a papaerback that’s in fair shape, I was pleased to see this review and agree that it was right on the money. The early part of the book was a little uncomfortable but when both men are older, the book really takes off. Mario’s different relationships with family members are also very well written and he and Tommy coming to terms with who they are as people and what it means to be together is great. What a great review of one of my favorite books. It was like seeing an old friend on your website this morning.

  • I remember thinking this sounded interesting because of the circus theme when someone (Victor J. Banis? I forget) said it was one of their favourites. I’m sorry to see there isn’t more about the circus life because to be honest that was what caught my attention, the love story secondary. I think there is a mystique about circuses during that time, the family-like atmosphere, the outcasts who found their life in the circus, just something so outside the realm of the norm for us regular people.
    I don’t think it’s something I’d seek out though since it seems to have enough issues that might not work for me. Nice review explaining where the issues could be for some readers.

    • Yes, I think you’d probably be just as dissapointed as i was about the lack of the layers of the circus – but then the book is large enough – start adding in extra characters and subplots and you’d not be able to pick it up!

      It’s certainly quite dark overall, I have to say, there’s few times that Mario and Tommy are content and happy with life or each other except in the air, and that’s really the crux of it all–it’s said right at the beginning that they will never take an argument up onto the rig, and “it was the only promise to each other that they ever kept” which was a heartbreaking line.

  • Just as a note, I see that there’s a hardcover copy (sans dust jacket) for under $10 over at – which is the cheapest price there by about $20.

  • I agree with your word of caution about the underage part. I also think Marion couched it properly with the fumbling not very sophisticated sex scenes that are portrayed. It comes off like male sexual experimentation but could be seen as abuse.
    Very hard to tell especially these days but she does a subtle dance afterwards to make sure to show that Tommy was very much the one to start being aggressive in approaching Mario eventually and so that was that.
    Glad you liked it.

    • I did like it a lot, and I’d certainly re-read it many times. I’m not at all bothered by the underage thing as it is–young men have sex (and women, obviously!) even back in the 1940s – it was just the set-up and the inability of Tommy to complain if he wanted to. You are right, she does jump over a few hoops afterwards to justify it, and to make it clear that he didn’t care–but some readers would be more than put off so good to know its there.

      That being said, it’s a realistic thing to happen, so I applaud her for not shying away from it – she could easily have made it a drunken fumble in private or an exploratory pass in bed, the whole rabbit in the headlights feel of it added to the sexual tension that was building up.

      • It is a realistic thing to happen. I got it when I first picked it up. I liked that about it immediately. The world is a rough place and this book is probably the most elegant in it’s approach here in a realistic way.

        Other parts are just cluncky and do not age very well. It’s a huge book. But what I did find out by reading several people’s accounts of it’s creation is that this book is actually was written almost contemporary to the time periods described. Marion wrote this thing off and on for many many years before it saw the light of day. It was her baby.


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Erastes is an author of gay historical fiction. Her novels cover many time periods and locations. She lives in Norfolk UK with demanding cats and never seems to have enough time to serve them.
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