Cannonball Read IV: The Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise by Julia Stuart
Before I tell you how much I love, love, love this book, I should mention that I have pretty high tolerance for whimsy and quirk. And I'm an Anglophile. And I have an adorably bearded husband and a precocious only son, so this book ticked off every single one of my boxes. I've tried to view the book objectively and ask myself if I would love it even if all the above were not true, but, honestly, I love it so much I can't separate myself from it. To say I adore it would be putting it too lightly. It's the only book I've ever finished and felt completely satisfied by but still started reading again immediately simply because I wanted to spend more time with the characters. I've just finished reading it for the third time, and this will be a book I return to again and again.
The novel focuses on Balthazar Jones, a delightfully bearded Beefeater who works and lives in the Tower of London. Because Balthazar has custody of the world's oldest living tortoise, the Queen decides to put him in charge of a new menagerie she opens at the Tower to house the animals she receives from foreign governments. In addition to the animals, the Tower also houses an amusing cast of human characters, including Balthazar's wife Hebe Jones; Septimus Drew, a chaplain who's obsessed with killing rats and who leads a secret double life; a raven-master whose odious flock of birds committed a gross assault on Balthazar's tortoise when he and his family first moved to the Tower; and a series of ghosts, most notably that of Sir Walter Raleigh who continues to conduct experiments and smoke tobacco in the Tower grounds. Hebe has grown increasingly dissatisfied with life in the Tower, but finds some relief at her job in the London Underground Lost Property Office, where she and her partner Valerie spend their days in the often futile attempt to re-unite tube riders with the odd valuables they leave behind. The real heart of the story, though, is the slow erosion of Hebe and Balthazar's marriage following the sudden death of their only child, Milo. Neither of them understands the other's grief, so instead of grieving together, they're falling apart. Their story grounds the novel and keeps the outrageousness of the rest of characters from becoming too much. For me, Stuart found just the right balance to keep the novel funny, appealing, and deeply moving.
Re-reading this book was like revisiting an old friend. I love these characters (and animals), and I still found myself laughing (and crying) out loud even on the third read. Again, I may be more attracted to the novel because it almost seems to have been custom-made for me, but I love it unabashedly and unreservedly.