THE GREATEST LOVE ON EARTH by Mary Ellen Dennis is a gripping story of great love, great betrayal and the great danger of getting what you want played out against the unusual and exotic background of mid-nineteenth century American circus life.
Equestrienne Calliope knows only the circus, but longs for a normal life, symbolized by the name "Mary". She loves Brian, the lion tamer, but he barely notices the young girl, and one day, he disappears. For years, Calliope and her father, the circus owner, soldier on as calamity after calamity caused by an unknown malefactor befalls the troupe. When Brian returns, the almost-grown Calliope appeals to him. But the big top burns down and separates them again.
After the disaster, Calliope awakens in the home of the rich grandparents of the little girl she rescued from the fire. Reviled by so-called "good" society for being part of the circus, Calliope reinvents herself as a Mary to find acceptance. But good society has a dangerous dark underbelly which threatens to destroy her. Lies lead to more lies and disaster after disaster as Calliope and Brian, who has also reinvented himself, seek their happiness with each other. And the evildoer who caused all those calamities at the circus lives on to spread more misery.
THE GREATEST LOVE ON EARTH is a fascinating glimpse of circus life, and a condemning study of Victorian American society with a mystery winding through the whole. The hypocritical and rigid "haves" who make the rules despise the lower-class circus people, when they are no better and often worse. Calliope and Brian are determined enough to fight them while they also battle each other when their desires conflict. I think both are a little too hard-headed, and Brian is less than heroic when he blames Calliope for things she can't control. There are multiple villains in this story, but the worst villain was too evil for my taste--he physically tortures Calliope.
But the circus is unique setting for a romance, and for those who have overdosed on noblemen, society misses and foreign locations, THE GREATEST LOVE ON EARTH is a welcome change.
ARC supplied by Sourcebooks