It is the nature of the freak to be exotic. The deformities, from birth or self-inflected, and abnormalities that set Them—the Living Skeletons, the Alligator Boys, the Illustrated Men, the Siamese Twins—apart from Us, occasional visitors to the sideshow, are not aspects of these people; rather, they are these people. The missing appendages or additional sex organs, the abundance of flesh or lack of pigmentation…these variations are what make freaks, in fiction as in life, uncanny figures: But for some chromosomal joke, bizarre foreign custom, or terrible accident, they would be we and we, they. Unsettling not just for their peculiarities, but for their nearness to normality, freaks exist in a limbo outside of society, fascinating because they are forbidden, exotic beings that are also, invariably, erotic ones, awakening in “normal” people the need to know, discover, understand.

Which explains, perhaps, why so many freak narratives are misfit love stories. Often, they follow the same basic skeleton: a “special person” falls for a not-so-special person, and someone, usually the “human curiosity,” gets hurt. In Tod Browning’s infamous 1933 horror film Freaks, for instance, a dwarf named Hans romances a beautiful but wicked trapeze artist named Cleopatra. In short order, the one-sided love affair sours. The normal-sized Cleopatra snaps during the film’s often-referenced wedding feast scene, shrieking at her fiance and other sideshow performers, “Freaks! Freaks!” And in the Broadway musical Sideshow, based on real-life conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hinton, the sisters fall in love (with two different men) and both end up brokenhearted. “I was weak,” one of the paramours tells Daisy. “This is not the behavior of a normal guy.”

The ideas of love—both self-love and love in the face of deformity—and normality are the main attractions on display in Sharlee Dieguez’s debut novel, The Bearded Lady, showcased under the big top of a small human story: two sisters, not conjoined twins, growing up in the early years of this century.

At novel’s start, Jessica “Jessie” and Amanda, nicknamed “Tweets,” Foster live just outside Quigley, Ga., a town where “[i]t wasn’t considered decent for blacks to attend to white folks, even dead white folks.” The year is 1901, and when the girls’ abusive father, Judd Harrison Foster, leaves them orphaned, Jessie breaks Quigley’s unwritten rule and enlists the services of Quigley’s black undertaker, Clarence Johnson. We learn, matter-of-factly, that Johnson is the only undertaker who refuses payment from the near-destitute girls. More important—Dieguez’s narrator explains in a casual, chummy voice that makes The Bearded Lady’s outlandish episodes palatable if not completely believable—Johnson used to provide Judd Foster with “the raw, homemade whiskey” the dead man favored. “The joke around town was that Clarence started pickling his customers long before they died, thereby saving himself a lot of work,” Dieguez writes.

The Bearded Lady is bolstered throughout with such welcome instances of local color and telling details. Indeed, they are the novel’s greatest charms—especially early on, while Dieguez sketches in the months immediately following Judd’s death, a Dickensian time for the Foster girls, complete with a wicked aunt who works them to exhaustion, denies them schooling, and ultimately turns them out for (gasp!) a crime they didn’t commit. The predicament they find themselves is common enough in fiction, even if the sisters—especially Jessie, who starts developing a beard in the 15th year of her life—are not.

The elder Foster girl spends the first third of Dieguez’s novel desperately trying to keep her thickening whiskers a secret from the world, shaving with her deceased father’s razor. She “work[s] hard to convince herself that she [is] a normal person, maybe almost pretty, sometimes, if the light [is] just right,” Dieguez writes, effectively capturing the young girl’s sense of displacement, but it’s a losing battle. “‘There ain’t nothin’ special about you Jessica, except’n your condition, which shore ain’t nothing to brag about,’” mean ol’ Aunt Bean rails at the tortured girl. It is only after they have joined a circus—Jessie as an accountant, Tweets as a roustabout—that the previous liability turns into the Foster girls’ greatest asset.

Unsurprisingly, the bulk of The Bearded Lady chronicles Jessie and Tweet’s life with the Rebel Pierce and Moser Brothers Circus, journeying through the deep South, their train stopping at such magical locations as New Orleans, Atlanta, and Deer Springs, the circus’ winter home in the Florida panhandle. For a girl whose greatest wish is to travel—”‘I want to go everywhere. Everywhere in the whole wide world,’” Tweets tells Clarence before the undertaker gives her the glassy blue-and-white “Travelin marble,” for good luck—Rebel Pierce’s show is a one-way ticket out of her colorless life in Quigley, a caravan of thrills and adventures.For Jessie, who decides to let her beard grow to make a better living as a performer, it offers something else. Behind the garishly painted flaps and tents of the sideshow, advertising “human oddities and monstrous miracula from the far corners of the globe,” the girl experiences “a heart-stopping glimpse of both beauty and deformity never imagined.”

Jessie sees herself, of course, among the special people of Rebel Pierce’s circus, each one of them bursting with inner life, their stories imbedded in Dieguez’s larger narrative like jewels in a crown. There are the fire-eating dwarf Simon, whose blue-white skin stands in shocking counterpoint to his bright orange hair; Fat Frannie, surrogate mother to the other freaks, her enormous body hiding an equally large heart; Tea-Top, the childlike pinhead; the Simpson twins, “joined back to back,” who, like Daisy and Violet, sing “beautiful duets”; the Stone Man, “a pitiful gentleman born with osteogenesis imperfects, or brittle bone disease, his joints so ossified he resembled a living statue”; and others.

With the sideshow as backdrop, a forbidden love triangle takes shape—among Jessie, the circus’s star equestrienne, Marion Des Cartes, and a handsome reporter from the Atlanta Herald named J. Cole—but it is Dieguez’s least satisfying conceit. The strong-jawed Cole is rendered broadly, like one of Disney’s new breed of hunky villains: “It must be nice to get away from those grotesque people,” he says to the still clean-shaven Jessie with casual, unthinking cruelty.

Marion, for her part, is a fascinating creation, an Argentinian lesbian who was orphaned when her father gave his life to save hers from a rabid dog. She loses integrity and personality, however, when she starts pining after Jessie, becoming jealous, morose, insecure, and cowardly.

Jessie, too—so feisty, resourceful, and strong-willed in other aspects of her life, endearing herself to the monstrous circus owner Rebel Pierce, positioning herself as the sideshow’s most popular attraction, ghost-writing articles for Cole’s newspaper, forever inventing stories in her head—loses luster when owning up to her feelings for Marion: “Jessie wondered for the thousandth time how Marion really felt about her. Was she imagining their attraction? Was it all one-sided? Was it only friendship?” Dieguez writes, and of course these are familiar doubts and insecurities—we’ve all been there—but one wishes a love between such extraordinary individuals would be a little more emotionally charged or, at least, racier than last week’s episode of Dawson’s Creek.

Charged with wit, tension, and a sense of carnival that Dieguez’s main romance lacks, there are other dramas in The Bearded Lady that keep the novel from sinking into a quagmire of melodramatic and sophomoric emotionalism. Tweets’ friendship with the Princess Mei Ling, whose notoriety springs from her tiny, bound feet, for instance, and her efforts to apprentice with the circus’s lion tamer, Gregori von Blucher, who had once been “a warrior, an officer in the Prussian army,” cue the novel’s two most effective sequences: a terrible fire that claims the life of one of the freaks and a lion’s rampage, superbly suspenseful, that threatens the life of one of the sisters. As sidekicks go, Tweets, blossoming into womanhood in her sister’s bearded, more famous shadow, is an excellent foil for Jessie, a living, breathing “normal” person as absorbing as any of the freaks.

In addition to its deft characterization of Jessie and Tweets (and, indeed, most of the Rebel Pierce and Moser Brothers Show’s denizens), The Bearded Lady is notable for an eleventh-hour plot development that finally raises the stakes of Jessie’s affair with Marion. It is a surprise that actually surprises, and it forces the elder Foster girl to confront her own intolerance of disfigurement and freakishness. “It was all about who was pretty and who was ugly,” Tweets, perhaps the novel’s wisest character, reflects near the end of the story, but hers is an incomplete thought. For Jessie, it is all about finding love and dignity in the face of ridicule and deformity—and accepting it, for herself and others. By novel’s end, Jessie has found a way to empower herself, both as a writer and a performer, and she is able to imagine for herself a life that reconciles her “two separate personae,” a reality in which she grows more beautiful as the dark hairs on her cheek lengthen, and her beard is not a handicap but, in Dieguez’s own words, a “strange gift” to be coveted. CP