Rachel's Reviews > The Tower, The Zoo, and The Tortoise

The Tower, The Zoo, and The Tortoise by Julia Stuart
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's review
May 26, 2011

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bookshelves: fiction

This is a picturesque novel about the employees and residents of the present-day Tower of London, the city's largest tourist attraction. The story focuses on Beefeater Balthazar Jones and his wife Hebe, who live in the Salt Tower with their ancient pet tortoise Mrs. Cook and who are grieving the recent death of their young son Milo. As the story opens, Balthazar is appointed to open and manage a menagerie on Tower grounds of the animals given to the Queen by foreign heads of state. He oversees the transfer from the London Zoo of a group of penguins who go missing en route, some giraffes who were transferred by mistake, an albatross who begins to molt in mourning of being separated from his mate, a Komodo dragon, an assortment of possums, various parrots, an Etruscan shrew who suffers from crippling shyness, and a bearded pig whom Balthazar basically steals from the zoo just because he likes his looks. Meanwhile, his wife Hebe goes to her job at the London Underground's Lost and Found department, where she spends her days trying to reunite lost items with their owners and lying down in the unclaimed magician's box (the kind used for sawing assistants in half) when things get to be too much for her.

Mostly a comic novel, there's an undercurrent of sadness that runs throughout. The Reverend Septimus Drew pines for Ruby Dore, the barmaid of the Tower's Rack and Ruin pub who has recently learned that she's pregnant; Hebe's coworker Valerie and the ticket inspector Arthur Catnip love each other from afar but both too tentative to do much about it; the Ravenmaster suffers an unhappy marriage and various affairs; and Mrs. Cook the tortoise is tormented by the crows. But mainly it's Balthazar and Hebe, who in their grief over their son become isolated from each other and cope in their own ways, Balthazar by collecting rain samples and Hebe by trying to find the owner of an urn of cremated remains that was left on one of the Underground lines, until things come to a quiet head on Milo's birthday.

I liked this book, but a lot of the characters were underdeveloped. It's a relatively short novel, so some of the subplots didn't get much attention and although Stuart tied up all the loose ends, some of it felt a little perfunctory. But it was a decent light read, and I liked it enough that I would read other things by the same author.
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