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Review: ‘Queen of the Air’ by Dean Jensen

Review: ‘Queen of the Air’ by Dean Jensen post image

Title: Queen of the Air: A True Story of Love and Tragedy at the Circus
Author: Dean Jensen
Genre: Narrative nonfiction
Year: 2013
Publisher: Crown
Acquired: NetGalley
Rating: ★★★★½

Briefly, From Blogger’s Recommend: Lillian Leitzel climbed her way out of poverty to become the biggest star in the most famous circus of the 1920s. But Leitzel’s success in the ring was a stark contrast to the frustrations in her personal life. Her one true love was Alfredo Codona, the greatest trapeze flyer of his time, but their reign as king and queen of the circus could lead only to their downfall.

Review: During the 1920s and 1930s, Lillian Leitzel was the biggest star of the most famous circus in the world. Born to a single mother (also a successful circus performer), Leitzel, as she would eventually be known, was an aerialist sensation almost from the moment she was born. Her pixie-like physique, unarguable beauty, and take-no-prisoner’s attitude helped elevate her to a mega-celebrity. But for all her success in the ring, her personal life remained in shambles, including her dramatic and fairy-tale romance with another circus celebrity, trapeze flyer Alfredo Codona.

In Queen of the Air, Dean Jensen tells Leitzel’s story as well as a brief history of the traveling circus, from it’s origins in the 1880s through the heyday of the ‘20s and ‘30s when Leitzel was a star. Queen of the Air is gritty and romantic and dramatic and sad — a great piece of historical nonfiction.

There’s always been something fascinating to me about the world of the circus, especially early circuses where the requirements for safety were much lower, making the dangers of the tricks much higher. Since I didn’t know anything about Lietzel or Alfredo going into the book, it felt as if any moment one of them would go flying through the air to their death, especially given the subtitle, “A true story of love and tragedy at the circus.”

Queen of the Air is billed as a real-life Water for Elephants which is, honestly, not that far off when it comes to the setting and historical context. The biggest difference is probably something that Katie at Doing Dewey pointed out in her review of Queen of the Air: unlike Jacob and Marlena, Leitzel and Alfredo were incredibly selfish people in both their professional and personal lives.

Leitzel demanded an extravagant salary and traveling arrangements, in stark contrast to the conditions of nearly everyone else in the circus. She was generous to some degree, giving big tips to other performers and hosting educational time for circus children in her tent, but overall looked out for herself first. Romantically, both she and Alfredo were impetuous and easily distracted from their partners, both leaving a trail of broken hearts behind them. While I can see how this would be a problem for some readers, it didn’t affect my enjoyment of this story; in truth, there’s something compellingly voyeuristic in reading the story of two people who were such forces of nature (for good and for bad).

I thought Queen of the Air was a great read. For all their flaws, Leitzel and Alfredo are compelling characters who provide a wonderful centerpiece to a broader look at the history and impact of the circus around the world. I highly recommend this one.

Other Reviews: Doing Dewey | Daydreams and Rainy Days |

If you have reviewed this book, please leave a link to the review in the comments and I will add your review to the main post. All I ask is for you to do the same to mine — thanks!

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Jennifer June 10, 2013, 8:33 am

    Another nonfic title to add to my wishlist. You’re killing me Kim, killing me! 😉

  • Rebecca @ Love at First Book June 10, 2013, 9:52 am

    Cool!!!! This sounds like a really unique and fun book! And I love interesting nonfiction! I wonder if it’s still on NG . . .

    • Kim June 12, 2013, 6:52 pm

      I’m not sure what the NetGalley expiration date is. Sometimes Crown leaves books up a bit after the publication date, which is nice.

  • Andi @ Estella's Revenge June 10, 2013, 11:12 am

    I’ve never been a huge circus fan, until I watched the reality show/documentary CIRCUS, about the Big Apple Circus. It was absolutely fascinating. Thanks for reviewing this one, Kim! It looks great!

    • Kim June 12, 2013, 6:53 pm

      A reality show about the circus? That would be awesome! Although, I think I tend to be more interested in old-timey circuses, so who knows. I’d definitely read a book about Cirque de Soleil though, so maybe not.

  • bermudaonion(Kathy) June 10, 2013, 12:16 pm

    I have a feeling I’ll love this book!

  • Katie @ Doing Dewey June 10, 2013, 3:29 pm

    I’m glad you liked it despite the characters 🙂 I didn’t read Water For Elephants until after this one and I was surprised by just how similar they were!

    • Kim June 12, 2013, 6:54 pm

      I read WATER FOR ELEPHANTS a long time ago, but I watched the movie sort of recently and saw some similarities. I think this would be a good read for people who liked the historical setting of that one, anyway.

  • Christie June 10, 2013, 5:03 pm

    I reviewed the book on my blog, thanks for the share:) http://daydreamsandrainydays.blogspot.com/2013/05/queen-of-air-by-dean-jensen-book-review.html

    I really enjoyed the book, but I agree the “characters” do have their flaws.

  • Jenny June 10, 2013, 6:45 pm

    I’m more of a fan in circus books in theory than in reality, I think — but this one sounds fascinating. Does she do other selfish things? I can imagine that if I were a tremendous talent and were worth whatever the high salary was to the circus, that’s what I’d ask for too. I would think, I can’t do this forever. I have to have enough money saved up.

    • Kim June 12, 2013, 6:56 pm

      From what I can remember, the most selfish stuff is about how she acts with the circus management and with her various lovers. She married several times and they all ended rather badly. She was pretty generous to the circus underlings though, sharing money and letting people use her tent and stuff. But yes, I think the reality of circus life and her age definitely played a part in her decisions — it would affect mine too!

  • Heather June 10, 2013, 10:26 pm

    Sounds like a great memoir! I’ll have to add this one to my list!

    • Kim June 12, 2013, 6:56 pm

      It’s not a memoir, it’s a historical biography of sorts — just so you don’t pick it up expecting one thing and getting another!

  • Sheila (Book Journey) June 11, 2013, 7:57 am

    This is Henrietta Lacks all over again! LOL you recommended it, I read it and loved it!

    • Kim June 12, 2013, 6:56 pm

      I love being a book pusher, especially for nonfiction 🙂

  • Charlie June 11, 2013, 3:47 pm

    I automatically thought of how much I liked The Night Circus but of course this is obviously a very different book. I’m not sure I’m keen on the sound of the selfishness (maybe I would if I’d heard of the people before) but the details about the circus at the time I’d be interested in reading about.

    • Kim June 12, 2013, 6:57 pm

      That’s an interesting comparison! I wouldn’t have made the connection, but now that you mention it I think there are a few things in common about how circus life works (even if THE NIGHT CIRCUS has a magical circus!).

  • Jennifer July 3, 2013, 6:41 pm

    Thanks for recommending this one to me. I did for the most part enjoy Water for Elephants. And I don’t know why but there is something about the circus life that intrigues me. I don’t think I’ve ever really even been to a circus which makes that interest even stronger. Even more I love the time period of the 1920s and 30s. This is definitely a book on my TBR list. I hope I can get around to reading it sooner than later.