Saturday, February 15, 2014

The Museum of Extraordinary Things

The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman
Scribner: 2/18/2014

Hardcover, 384 pages
ISBN-13: 9781451693560

Mesmerizing and illuminating, Alice Hoffman’s The Museum of Extraordinary Things is the story of an electric and impassioned love between two vastly different souls in New York during the volatile first decades of the twentieth century.
Coralie Sardie is the daughter of the sinister impresario behind The Museum of Extraordinary Things, a Coney Island boardwalk freak show that thrills the masses. An exceptional swimmer, Coralie appears as the Mermaid in her father’s “museum,” alongside performers like the Wolfman, the Butterfly Girl, and a one-hundred-year-old turtle. One night Coralie stumbles upon a striking young man taking pictures of moonlit trees in the woods off the Hudson River.
The dashing photographer is Eddie Cohen, a Russian immigrant who has run away from his father’s Lower East Side Orthodox community and his job as a tailor’s apprentice. When Eddie photographs the devastation on the streets of New York following the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, he becomes embroiled in the suspicious mystery behind a young woman’s disappearance and ignites the heart of Coralie.
With its colorful crowds of bootleggers, heiresses, thugs, and idealists, New York itself becomes a riveting character as Hoffman weaves her trademark magic, romance, and masterful storytelling to unite Coralie and Eddie in a sizzling, tender, and moving story of young love in tumultuous times. The Museum of Extraordinary Things is Alice Hoffman at her most spellbinding.

My Thoughts:

The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman is a highly recommended historical fiction novel set in New York in the early 1900's. The story is told through alternating narratives from two characters, Eddie (Ezekiel) and Coralie, and takes place before and during two well-known fires of the time: The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire on March 25, 1911, and the Coney Island Dreamland fire of May 26, 1911.

Coralie Sardie lives with her father, the Professor, in his Museum of Extraordinary Things on Coney Island. The museum is really a freak show where her father displays natural curiosities while taking advantage of his human marvels for his side shows. Due to her webbed hands, Coralie has been in training her whole life to be the mermaid in his show. The Professor is an abusive man who exerts absolute control over his daughter. If not for Maureen, the house keeper and her mother figure, Coralie would not be shown any love or attention.

Eddie (Ezekiel Cohen) has left his birth name, religion, and his father behind him to become a photographer. He felt that his father was a coward and weak. Eddie is distancing himself from his emotions as well as his past while he pursues his photography. But Eddie also has a reputation as someone who can find missing people which eventually leads him to meeting Coralie.

The Museum of Extraordinary Things is part mystery, part love story and part historical social commentary. The historical setting is very compelling since this was a turbulent time where the gap between socioeconomic groups was wide. Factory owners took advantage of the poor. Women and children were treated as lesser beings or possessions of men. The mystery comes into play when Eddie begins searching for a missing girl. And the love story is, obviously, when Coralie and Eddie are almost mysteriously drawn to each other through dreams.

In this historical fiction setting, Hoffman embraces magical realism in a writing style that is very descriptive and sensuous.  It's important to note that in the first part of the chapters the characters are talking about their past. The print is italicized and it is written in first person, so it is set apart, but it will be helpful to take note of that distinction since the other part of the chapter will be what is happening currently in the story. I will admit that this wasn't working for me and I kept feeling like the story was flipping back and forth or repeating itself too much. I am willing to concede that it could have been due to my digital advanced reading copy and the published edition will flow more fluidly between transitions.

Disclosure: My Kindle advanced reading copy was courtesy of Scribner for review purposes.


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