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The Life She Was Given

4.05  ·  Rating details ·  28,453 ratings  ·  3,629 reviews
From acclaimed author Ellen Marie Wiseman comes a vivid, daring novel about the devastating power of family secrets--beginning in the poignant, lurid world of a Depression-era traveling circus and coming full circle in the transformative 1950s.

On a summer evening in 1931, Lilly Blackwood glimpses circus lights from the grimy window of her attic bedroom. Lilly isn't allowe
Paperback, 356 pages
Published July 25th 2017 by Kensington Publishing Corporation
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Kim I struggle with how the author can say the scene isn't graphic - it was incredibly difficult to read, and graphic enough (describing the screams, the …moreI struggle with how the author can say the scene isn't graphic - it was incredibly difficult to read, and graphic enough (describing the screams, the damage done to the body, etc). And it was very prolonged.

Having read Water for Elephants and thinking that was tough, this was 80x worse. Reading the Q&A from the author explained why the scene was added, so I get it, but if you're sensitive to animal cruelty at all this is a tough book. (less)
Ellen Wiseman Hi! Thanks for the question! I would call THE LIFE SHE WAS GIVEN creepy suspense because old attics and freak shows are creepy. (to me anyway!) I woul…moreHi! Thanks for the question! I would call THE LIFE SHE WAS GIVEN creepy suspense because old attics and freak shows are creepy. (to me anyway!) I wouldn't call it horror or gory or violent. I don't think it will give you nightmares! If it helps at all, Forward Reviews said it has potent Gothic elements. Anyway, I hope you'll check it out and let me know what you think! (less)

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Average rating 4.05  · 
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 ·  28,453 ratings  ·  3,629 reviews

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Oct 27, 2017 rated it it was amazing
If I could give this book a million stars, I would. It was THAT good. My insides felt like they would rip apart and I wanted to scream and cry. And THAT is what makes a GREAT book. This book had me emotionally charged, to say the least.

It is the 1930's. We meet Lilly. She is a young girl kept locked in the attic by her parents - for her own good, they believe. The reason? "God forgot to give me color," says the little girl. My heart broke at this remark. Nowadays being an albino is not a big dea
Ellen Wiseman
Nov 18, 2016 added it  ·  (Review from the author)  ·  review of another edition
I hope everyone will add this book to their TBR pile! :)
Angela M (On a little break)
I've said before that I'm fascinated by what it is that prompts an author to write a story and I appreciate that Wiseman in an interview at the end of the novel tells us how idea for the story came about. " ...the idea started with the image of an old camera hidden inside a mansion. Then I imagined a little girl locked in the attic, which probably stemmed from my love of Flowers in the Attic and my fascination with stories about people hiding their "less than perfect" children in a back bedroom. ...more
Jun 08, 2017 rated it did not like it
(This review is based on an advance reading copy I downloaded from NetGalley in May, 2017. Please be advised that the few items quoted below may change in the final published copy, but needed to be included in order for me to leave a meaningful review. Since I only read the first half of the book, I'm not really sure if anything below can be considered a spoiler, but there are some references below to people and events that occur throughout the first half. Read on at the risk of learning that al ...more
Jun 05, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: public-library
The good, the bad, and the ugly underpinnings of a 1930's circus and sideshow enterprise.  

The relationship between mothers and daughters can be tricky.  Here, the mother is a religious fanatic who foists her toxic beliefs on her daughter.  Her daughter, the abomination, who must be locked away in the attic "for her own good".  For the better part of 10 years, the father, who was apparently born without a backbone, allows it to happen.  When the mother makes a decision to rid herself of the abom
Sep 13, 2017 rated it really liked it
THE LIFE SHE WAS GIVEN by ELLEN MARIE WISEMAN was a moving, haunting, and heartbreaking tale with an intriguing and engaging storyline that I thoroughly enjoyed.  I have a fascination for circus themed books and this one kept me entertained and spellbound right to the very end.

ELLEN MARIE WISEMAN delivers a vivid, descriptive, and well-written read here with some uncomfortable and cringe worthy scenes that were difficult to read at times. The story is told in alternating perspectives of two ver
Genia Lukin
Jul 30, 2017 rated it did not like it
Shelves: historical
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Susan Peterson
Mar 08, 2017 rated it it was amazing
The Life She Was Given is a riveting, heart-wrenching story, a book unlike anything I've ever read!! My heart was racing from the very first page; my heart was pulled in a million different directions. The Life She Was Given runs the gamut of emotions; tender and terrifying, heartbreaking and hopeful. Julia and Lilly, two young women, decades apart, who grew up unloved, victimized and mistreated; can they overcome their dismal childhoods, and find a path to resilience, strength, love, and happin ...more
It was 1931 and Lilly Blackwood had spent her entire short life in the attic bedroom of her parent’s house. Never allowed outside or even downstairs in case “someone saw her” - she was told by her Momma that she was an abomination. But things changed the night her Momma took her across the paddock of their land to the lights and tents of a circus which had arrived only a couple of days previously. The sights and sounds, even the smells, were frightening to Lilly – the sky big and vast. She had n ...more
Dorie  - Cats&Books :)
Circus themed books are a hit or miss for me so I was slightly wary when starting this book. It had received some great reviews from my Goodreads friends and so I thought I’d give it a go.

The novel is told from two points of view. We first meet Lilly, in the early 1930’s. who is a little girl living locked in an attic for 10 years with nothing known of the outside world except what she reads in books and the little that she can see out of her window. She was told over and over throughout her lif
Feb 15, 2022 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This was an amazing book. So well written. Not a lot of depth. It keeps the reader drawn in, wanting more. What appears to be a parallel timeline is actually a dual timeline starting in the 1930s. Some triggers such as animal cruelty and abuse of humans and animals.
Marialyce (absltmom, yaya)
Dec 30, 2017 rated it really liked it
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Nov 17, 2017 rated it really liked it
4.5 I thoroughly enjoyed reading The Life She Was Given. I felt my heartstrings pulled as I read about the harrowing tale of Lilly being locked in a room and her mother selling her to the circus. And then in alternating chapters we’re introduced to Julia set a least 20 years apart from Lilly. We know that Julia was anxious to escape the strict and cold environment she grew up in and distances herself from her family. Then one day at work in a diner she receives unexpected news that turns her lif ...more
Sep 12, 2017 rated it it was ok
While reading this book, I found myself checking to see if it was a young adult book. It isn't but it reads like one. Minus the many spelling and grammar errors it has, the writing isn't very sophisticated. The characters aren't well developed so as a reader, I didn't really feel a connection with anyone in the story. The only characters that I could relate to happen to be the animals in the background of the plot. I have always despised the circus ever since I saw the Ringling Bros. and Barnum ...more
Aug 13, 2017 rated it it was ok
The story has a dual timeline - Lilly Blackwood in the 1930’s and Julia Blackwood over 2 decades later. Both characters experience deplorable childhoods largely at the hands of their “mother”. The story premise was interesting, but the writing wasn’t stellar. I never got a sense of the 50’s in Julia’s story. There was too much inner dialogue throughout, especially from Julia. ("What was she supposed to do now? And what about the horses? Were they okay? Would Claude show up to take care of them? ...more
Jul 19, 2017 rated it it was amazing

Lilly was born an albino in the early 1930s during the depression to a family that was fairly well off during that time, the family owned Blackwood Manor and horse farm. Lilly’s mother kept her locked up in the attic until Lilly was ten years old before selling her to the Circus where she became a member of the “freak show”. All the time Lilly was locked up in the attic, hidden away from the outside world, her mother told her she was a monster and an abomination. Her mother was a
Jan 24, 2017 rated it really liked it
I've read every novel Ellen Marie Wiseman has written, and although they were all wonderful, none touched me quite like The Life She Was Given. In the 1930's, six year old Lilly had no idea why she spent her life locked in the attic. In the 1950's, nineteen year old Julia knew she had to escape her overly religious mother upon the death of her father. The story of these two girls is woven together with grief and heartache. It has all the beauty of Water for Elephants. The Life She Was Given is a ...more
Cindy Burnett
Jul 25, 2017 rated it really liked it
3.5-4 stars

The Life She Was Given is one of the saddest books that I have read in a long while. The book is beautifully written, but I had a hard time reading portions of it because the story line is so depressing. The Life She Was Given is written in a dual timeline format. Lilly’s story takes place mainly in the 1930’s, and Julia lives in the 1950’s. Having children of my own, I found it so disheartening to read about the parents that raised Lilly and Julia. With respect to Lilly, I do not wan
♥ Sandi ❣
4.5 stars

I enjoy the writing of Wiseman. She is articulate and carries a story very well. She takes the time to lay her characters out and explain their importance. Her books are diversified and well researched. She is easily becoming one of my favorite authors.

This particular book deals with loss, loneliness and acceptance. It starts out with a forlorn child being sold into the world of a traveling circus in the early 1930's. Then, by alternate chapters, it moves to the 1950's and a young girl
Sherri Thacker

I wasn’t sure how I was going to like this book about a circus. But after reading all the reviews on Goodreads, I decided to get it as soon at came into my library. There are a lot of very uncomfortable things that go on like child abuse and animal abuse in the circus. A lot of family secrets throughout and the ending …. SHOCKING! I was not expecting the ending at all!! This book grabbed me from page 1 and kept me totally “hooked” from beginning to end. I did not want to put this book down and I
Nov 24, 2018 rated it it was ok
There were great aspects of this narrative with main character development, but the problems with it are so severe I don't even know where to begin.
Ditto on all the critical reviews.
If you want to read really good circus literature, check out Sara Gruen's "Water For Elephants" and Cathy Day's "The Circus in Winter," both of which far exceed this book in every way.
I had a fair amount to say about this book and why I thought it wasn't very good. Then I hit the wrong keys on the keyboard and lost my text. I don't feel like reconstructing it because I just don't think this is worth any more of my time. So, off the top of my head....

Surprisingly, the fact that the albino character's depiction is so shallow and lacking authenticity/accuracy was the least of what turned me off about this book. The albinism was merely a device to get the character from Point A t
May 22, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A few thoughts---
I must say I have read and enjoyed every novel that Ellen Marie Wiseman has written and "The Life She Was Given" touched me greatly. Perhaps it was the fact that I've always had a fascination for the circus. As a young girl I can remember paying a whole 25 cents to enter the Side Show only to realize that they were "fakes" and feeling very upset with myself that I had wasted my hard earned quarter. Or maybe it was the animals...Oh my...being a true animal lover, my heart was cap
Stephanie Anze
Aug 29, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Lilly Blackwood has never left the attic. At ten years old, she is told by her mother that her appearance scares others and thus, its safer for her to stay hidden. All that changes one fateful night when Lilly is told to don her best dress and then taken to the circus. There her mother meets with a strange man, money is exchanged and Lilly is left behind in the custody of said man. Fastforward a few years, Julia Blackwood is moving back to her childhood home. Unknown to her, its a home that harb ...more
Sep 20, 2017 rated it did not like it
The story idea was intriguing, and the book itself was a very fast read. The characters were flatly unbelievable though, and the writing was bogged down by cliches, gimmicks, unrealistic scenarios, and repetition.

(view spoiler)
Gina Fava
Jan 23, 2018 rated it did not like it
Sophomoric writing, melodramatic scenes, tired and boring tell instead of show description, caricature-styled characters with zero development. There is too much wrong with the story (we’ve already done Flowers in the Attic and Water for Elephants) the clear lack of research, the anachronisms, the overthetop Lilly asthma/fainting thing, STOP...I can’t get back the time I lost in my life reading this novel so I’m done devoting time to reviewing. Just, please, don’t waste your time.
Oct 25, 2017 rated it it was amazing
This is an amazing book that just sucked me in from the very beginning. It is the story of two girls: Lily, aged 9 who has been kept locked in her parents' attic since she was born around 1922 with a deformity that her mother determined was an "abomination", (it wasn't) and about 20 years later, Julia, aged 19, a runaway, who has just inherited her parents' estate and horse farm, so she returns to the home she hated.

The story starts with Lily's mother finally leading her out of her attic prison
Sarah Swann
Sep 20, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I don’t even know of I can properly put this into words. I loved every second of this book. The characters were both infuriating and amazing. My heart broke several times. Pepper made me cry....I just feel so deeply for so many things. There were twists I didn’t see coming. I loved it. So much.
Rhonda Ruff
Aug 14, 2017 rated it really liked it
Such a heartbreaking story! I flew through the pages wanting to find out what happened! All I can say is parents from hell. Can't imagine what some people do to others. ...more
Aug 04, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
THIS BOOK RIGHT HERE!!!! This is historical fiction my friends. How can a book be heartbreakingly beautiful. Yep... I totally made that word up. If you do not mind your heart being trampled on over & over again... Read this book. If you love well written characters... Read this book. If you love a good PLOT TWIST.... Read this book! If you have EYES lol... Read This Book!!! I loved it! Well done Ellen Marie Wiseman... Well done..
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A first-generation German American, Ellen Marie Wiseman discovered her love of reading and writing while attending first grade in one of the last one-room schoolhouses in NYS. She is a New York Times Bestselling author whose novels have been translated into twenty languages. Her debut novel, THE PLUM TREE, is loosely based on her mother’s stories about growing up in Germany during the chaos of WWI ...more

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46 likes · 21 comments
“Then again, she didn't like small talk either, so she was glad he wasn't commenting on the weather or the landscape. Life was too big and too short and too important to talk about the lack of rain or the latest gossip. She wanted to know how people felt about themselves and one another, whether they were happy or sad. She wanted to know what made them feel loved and what hurt them to the core. She wanted to know about their past, how they got where they were, and their relationships with their mothers and fathers and siblings. She wanted to know if she was the only mixed-up person in the world who felt completely and utterly alone.” 7 likes
“She didn't want to think about unhappy things right now. And besides, thinking about her past wouldn't change her future.” 6 likes
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