Book Review: The Light of Luna Park by Addison Armstrong

August 17, 2021

As probably many would be, I was drawn to The Light of Luna Park by the novel’s source of inspiration—its historical model of Luna Park, the amusement park in Coney Island, New York. The site witnessed the controversial invention and exhibition of incubators that saved thousands of premature babies in the early 20th century. Considered a “freak show” by the mainstream medical practice, this place was the only institution that saw premature babies as lives worth saving at the time. However ridiculous this might sound to us today, it was the status quo that the majority did not question.

Althea, a young nurse who had seen lives as such fading in front of her, did the opposite. She received a series of backlashes, which reveals how religious dogma and conventions could be used as excuses (“if God said so”) for prejudice and discrimination. That certain lives don’t deserve saving because they are “weak” was a common belief promoted by the eugenic movement in the US between the 1920s and 1950s, a backdrop for the novel as the protagonists embark on their journey during the same time period. The Light of Luna Park helps us reimagine what it was like to fight against these discriminations, a fight full of individual struggles and sacrifices.

Unfolding in two parallel storylines, The Light of Luna Park introduces the reader to two women who have found their calling yet are grappling with fulfilling them. Despite Althea’s dedication to her work, no doctor values her opinion on trying to see premature babies as full lives; meanwhile, Stella, a young teacher,  is about to quit her job, leaving behind a group of disabled or immigrant children she wants to educate and protect. The choice of the first-person perspective for both stories maximizes the experience for the reader, engaging them in a stroll through the two characters’ lives in the most personal way. Althea’s inner world is marked with increasing determination as she kidnaps a baby from an advanced hospital (thus rescuing the baby from death), making itself a captivating and compelling journey. And Stella, on a path to learn more about the mysterious pasts of both her husband and her mother, matures from her vulnerability during her break from teaching. Stella discovers on this path a universal truth of humanity: the knowledge that one must not know everything about a loved one to truly love them.This dual-storyline fiction provides a combined experience of a thriller and a bildungsroman.

The work is cultivated among and soaked in women’s voices—vulnerable and hesitant at times, strong and determined eventually. It’s a celebration of the progressive liberty of choices. It reminds the reader of what women historically needed to face, from being dismissed on their opinions to having no equal access to academic or professional achievements and recognition. Some of the fear and concerns of the daring characters still rings true today—job, career, profession, whichever we want to call it, is much more complicated for women than it is for men. It’s a means to bring income and to advance social status, but it’s simultaneously a distraction from childcaring responsibilities. Sometimes, as in Althea’s case, it becomes a mourning stone for what she had to lose to keep the child.

Under the theme of motherhood, Althea and Stella’s stories are in conversation with each other. As the stories progress, the definition of motherhood enlarges. It is so rich and inclusive—acquiring, earning, stealing, claiming, or simply protecting and fighting for children makes one a mother. It is much more than the biological relationship predetermined by nature. As the reader learns with Stella how the two protagonists are related, Stella puts an end to her search and goes back to her job with the regained strength. A daughter is transformed into a mother. In The Light of Luna Park, motherhood is a synonym for being capable of love.

This heartwarming debut novel falls short at its sometimes weak characterization. Stella’s monologue could be hard to engage with due to its lack of self-awareness of her privilege. Her self-image gets ahead of her fight against discrimination towards disabled children. On the other hand, the male characters seem to be dichotomous—they are either loyal and supportive love interests (Althea’s Dr. Morrison and Stella’s husband Jack) or misogynistic, violent, and arrogant people (most doctors and Stella’s headmaster, among others.). The only exception, interestingly, is the incubator doctor who existed in real life. He showed up in the story as a weird figure—not rule-biding yet meticulous about his work. Nonetheless, The Light of Luna Park would satisfy a curious mind or a young soul that seeks a history-based, well-researched, emotionally intense adventure.

Publication Date: August 10th, 2021

Publisher: Putnam (Penguin)

Reviewed by Qionglu Lei


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