Moody and musical ... Warrell excels at describing these points of contact — more often bruising impact than connection — conveying the varying degrees of longing, loneliness, and even aversion that can bring two people together ... She’s also skilled at describing jazz — and, perhaps more important, what the music means to a musician ... Despite this sensitive portrayal, the book does have occasional off notes ... The specificity — the ripped-from-the-headlines quality — feels jarring, at least to this Boston-area reader ... Warrell does much better when she sticks to the timeless dance we humans do: between love and fear, the need to embrace and the search for self. For Circus, Koko, and the score of others in this sprawling and ambitious book, it’s an improvisation, and at its best, it’s beautiful.
... reads like smooth jazz music, with a full cast of interlocking characters creating a complex harmony that I could not get enough of. Circus Palmer is our main character, an aging and floundering jazz musician who charms and cheats on the women in his life. Never have I wanted so badly to grab a character by the shoulders and shake some sense into him! The women truly take center stage in this story, loved and abandoned by Circus in turns. The narrative was full of angst, but the ending was sweet and redemptive.
First-time novelist Warrell tells this powerful, polyphonic tale mainly through the voices of those people Circus loves and leaves ... All of these narrators appear and reappear as recurring motifs in the fugue-like tapestry of Circus’ life, each playing a variation on the theme of this deeply flawed but charismatic man’s hold on them, but also displaying their determination to establish individual lives. Maggie, whom Circus abandons after she reveals she’s pregnant with his child, and Koko, struggling with her sexual coming-of-age, are at the emotional center of a novel that ripples with passion and the ineffable sadness of relationships run aground. And yet, at the end, there is an uplifting sense of possibility, a deeply satisfying tonic chord set against the dissonance that has come before. Jazz, Circus reminds us, 'sweetens the soul,' and so it is in this remarkably assured, unforgettable debut.