Love and Other Consolation Prizes

Written by Jamie Ford
Review by Cynthia Slocum

A few years after being transported to Seattle, Ernest Young, a mixed-race orphan from China, finds the course of his future altered dramatically when he is given away as a prize at the 1909 World’s Fair. The raffle winner turns out to be Madam Flora, well-known proprietress of the city’s poshest, most exclusive and refined house of ill repute. Despite protests from upstanding civic leaders who offered the boy to strangers for the price of a ticket, she takes him to his new home at the Tenderloin, and Ernest joins her serving staff as a houseboy. At first, he adapts well to this peculiar environment, glad to escape the school where he never fit in and the meddlesome plans of a condescending scholarship sponsor. He becomes friends with the kitchen maid and with Madam Flora’s daughter, soon falling in love with each in a different way.

However, as his innocence erodes, Ernest begins to perceive the harsh, unsavory realities beneath the illusion of elegance at the Tenderloin, as well as the equally unpalatable hypocrisy and callousness of the society outside.

Alternating between the early 1900s and 1962, when a second World’s Fair takes place in Seattle, this story interlaces the two fairs as turning points in Ernest’s life. His daughter, an investigative reporter, prods him into wading through memories and past events that still impact his family more than 50 years later.

Abundant historical and sensory details vividly recreate both eras. Combining rich narrative and literary qualities, the book achieves a multi-faceted emotional resonance. It is by turns heart-rending, tragic, disturbing, sanguine, warm, and life-affirming. Perceptive themes that run throughout culminate at the end. A true story from the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition inspired this very absorbing and moving novel. Highly recommended.