That Time I Joined the CircusThat Time I Joined the Circus by J.J. Howard

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Initial reaction: Despite an atmospheric implied promo, “That Time I Joined the Circus” really doesn’t quite match up to the mark of what the story’s about, and was a bit of a lukewarm read for me despite several problems. Lexi’s a young woman who, after a series of difficult blows in her life, searches for her mother, who might have joined a circus. She finds more than she bargained for in her journey, including three guys she has conflicted feelings for, and a mother who didn’t leave under the measures that Lexi thought she had. The music/pop culture references in here were a little overmuch, but I did like some attempts of intimacy addressed with them.

Full review:

I think “That Time I Joined the Circus” could’ve been an even more potent coming of age/coming to terms novel that it was. In the aftermath of reading it, it was largely forgettable. It’s not that I didn’t appreciate the music references, the heartache the character faced with leaving home and having to make a living for herself in light of terrible events. I found that Lexi’s character was trying too hard in many dimensions, not just in her actions and relationships, but in the voice of the character as well. I also had a hard time keeping track of whether she was named Lexi or Xandra, considering the crossing of different timelines and players in this story. For convenience sake, I’ll call her Lexi.

Lexi literally has no money or value to her name. She’s kicked out of high school, sells what possessions she owns in her apartment, and sets off to find her mother, whom she believes has joined a circus. She happens upon a circus group that had known her mother for a brief time before she took off, and goes to work for them to get enough to live off. In that time, she meets two boys who end up vying for her affections, and ends up reuniting with a third she was hurt by and left behind.

Lexi has a passion for music and often makes references to songs and artists which fit to her situation and interests. I appreciated this in spurts. I recognized the songs with ease because some of them are contemporary and others are from my generation (Keane, Radiohead, Gin Blossoms, Broken Bells – there are a lot of gems in here). At the same time, while some of these references do hit home in certain scenes, others are simply dropped in for the sake of being “cool”. Even Lexi employs language that tries to be trendy and fails miserably (including use of an ableist term. *winces*)

There were moments of this novel that had resonance, such as what happened to Lexi’s family that ended up pulling them apart and having her set off on her own. Yet, I was skeptical of many things, including the in and out dealings that Lexi had with the boys she knew. Particularly considering her role with Eli. It was difficult enough with the way the narrative kept jumping around on the timeline. That made it difficult to connect to certain revelations as well as they could’ve been. But with Eli coming back into the picture, and the way the narrative juggled Lexi dealing with each of the three guys AND then coming to terms with her mother and the revelations with that, it felt somewhat muddled to me. I really couldn’t feel as strongly for any of the characters here because they weren’t really given as much individual weight, nor with even progression with the way the story was told.

Even with this story being about forgiveness and coming to terms, the treatment of those matters came too quick and too light to really delve into the seriousness of them, and it wasn’t supplemented well with Lexi’s voice. I did like parts of the atmosphere drawn in the circus environment, and some of the workers that Lexi gets to know, but ultimately, it wasn’t enough for me to say that I had more than a lukewarm impression of this overarching novel. The ties at the end show at least a hopeful road for Lexi in the future, though not with the connection I’d hoped to have with this novel.

Overall score: 2/5

Note: I received this as an ARC from NetGalley, from the publisher Scholastic.

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