Presents fortunate readers with a fascinating look at the itinerant troupe and their hardscrabble world ... Ms. Allen’s performers narrate chapters in turn, providing cross-hatched character studies which I particularly enjoyed. However, we never hear from Doc Bell himself, that charlatan who knowingly sells useless remedies and exploits the desperation of his poverty-stricken minions, and I would have enjoyed that too. However, Ms. Allen’s cast of performers is so diverse and complex that I don’t mind the omission—let Doc Bell keep his secrets. Highly recommended.
Allen uses this little world to explore larger issues of race, class, and gender. Writing primarily in the present tense, she gives us a set of characters who are odd and often lovable, characters who wrestle with sticky parts of their pasts and try to imagine life beyond Doc Bell's ... Entropy is at the heart of Tonic and Balm. More than constructing the show, the book deconstructs it, as if designed to shed characters at the same pace that Haydn's Farewell Symphony requires musicians to leave the stage. It's a tricky premise, but in general, it works ... The characters may disappear one-by-one from Dr. Bell's, but Miss Antoinette's strong, mysterious presence holds their reflections.
Chapters feature other narrators who reveal nothing about themselves or their circumstances until it is absolutely necessary. This technique of divulging only whatever the storytellers see, hear, feel, or remember in the instant they become aware of it imbues every unfolding scene with palpable intimacy ... Never lacking in forward momentum, tension, or suspense, Stephanie Allen’s Tonic and Balm could easily be a page-turner except that the sooner the pages are turned, the sooner Doc Bell’s medicine show must be summoned back to history. The lure of finding out what happens next pales against the opportunity to spend more time with a captivating clan of cast-offs who were only misfits prior to stumbling upon one another.
...entertaining and deeply affecting ... Allen takes us into the heart of...relationships, and into the interior lives of individual characters, creating an illuminating and satisfying experience for readers ... I came to care deeply about Antoinette and Sauer, and so many other characters in Tonic and Balm, which...is wonderfully strange and haunts the imagination long after the players have exited the stage.
Despite the linear nature of time in the book, the stories feel circular, networked. The towns and nights blur together. Sometimes the show is pretty good, and other times it’s pretty bad, but it’s always the same show ... This sense of repetition is not wearying for the reader, but it deftly communicates the characters’ weariness ... A novel like this is about the people in it, and the multivocal narration of the troupe makes the book resemble its subject. Each new story is another act, another performer. But it’s a deeply sad book, full of heartbreak and injustice ... Allen’s work takes place at eye level, between people, not between societal forces ... she’s also a wonderful writer at the sentence level ... an unusual book on an unusual topic, and a fine fictional chronicle of a lost art.
In its emphasis on place and its reliance on the character sketch as the primary narrative strategy, Tonic and Balm is strongly reminiscent of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, although in some ways it is a kind of inversion of Winesburg: where Winesburg is depicted as a static, soul-stifling sort of place, very much rooted to the social order underlying it, Doc Bell’s Miracles and Mirth Medicine Show is of course an itinerant home for itinerant people, who manage to forge a functional community of sorts rather than involuntarily subordinate themselves to the standards of a community that does not value their contribution ... This nudges the novel toward sentimentality, a quality finally not shared with Winesburg, Ohio. If Tonic and Balm, like Anderson’s story cycle, succeeds both in creating memorable characters and in fashioning a formal whole that is more substantial than the aggregation of its parts, it is less harsh in its vision of human possibility under pressure from social convention, suggesting some degree of compassion and solidarity might win out in response to such pressure ... that the novel does not settle for merely recreating period details in an attempt at historical fidelity (an effort with which too many historical novels content themselves) is entirely to its credit. But the attempt to extract from history an elegiac redemption story may not entirely avoid superimposing a present idealization on the past.
Those who read circus fiction will find some enjoyment here; for readers seeking novels about 18th-century porcelain; a fun holiday read for any contemporary romance fan; overall this is an entertaining and enchanting read—thoroughly delightful; recommended only for fans of Parker’s previous books