Title: The Museum of Extraordinary Things
Author: Alice Hoffman
No. of Pages: 384
Genre: Historical Fiction
Release Date: 18 February 2014
Bottom Line: Fascinating character study
“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.”
Thoughts: The cast of characters within The Museum of Extraordinary Things is large, diverse, and highly entertaining. It includes mobsters and reformed mobsters, immigrants, those who prey on immigrants, opportunists, the wealthy and the poverty-stricken, the curious and the ambivalent, idealists and realists and so many more. In spite of their backgrounds and likeability – some are more despicable than others – there is a beauty within each of their differences that Ms. Hoffman masterfully showcases. Even the most depraved of the lot have aspects that one finds admirable. It is a fascinating character study, one that highlights the gradations of humanity in all of its glory.
One must include Coney Island among the cast of characters. Unlike any other location within the story, it is the one area that receives pages upon pages of loving description with attention paid to the type of people who visit the attractions and those who make up the attractions. Its vibrancy is tangible, while Coralie’s enthusiasm for its tawdry beauty and its exponential growth is infectious. It is the one area described within the novel that is vividly clear with Ms. Hoffman’s breathtaking descriptions of the good, the bad, and the weird that makes up the island.
One of the more disappointing elements is the misleading emphasis on the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. Given the synopsis, one might easily consider it to be a key scene within the story. While it is given the attention and gravitas such a serious accident deserves, it is by no means a key plot point. Rather, it is an occurrence that happens within Eddie’s life. The connections between what happens that fateful day and the rest of the story are given lesser attention than Coralie’s growth beyond her father’s influence. The lack of emphasis is not a big deal in the grand scheme of things, but readers should be warned that it is not the pivotal point within the story as the synopsis may lead one to believe.
The love story within The Museum of Extraordinary Things is a bit of a stretch. Coralie’s and Eddie’s love at first sight does not ring authentic, which is fitting given how sheltered Coralie is and how lonely Eddie is. Theirs is a relationship brought about by foreignness and need, respectively. To see their relationship bloom into something more substantial and long-lasting is beautiful to behold but is a there is an element of fantasy to it given how quickly it occurs with very minimal interaction between them. If this were a true romance novel, it would be easier to accept such sudden eternal love. However, since this story has romantic elements among its other characteristics, their relationship is a shade disconcerting.
The Museum of Extraordinary Things is a surprisingly quiet novel in spite of its characters and locale. Neither Coralie nor Eddie is an action-filled character, and it takes a lot for either one of them to gather the courage and the drive to take decisive action. This does not mean that the story is without action. The factory fire is not the only major scene of catastrophe and there are plenty of bad actions afoot in Eddie’s childhood. Still, there is a peaceful quality to the entire story that not only highlights the beauty within everyone regardless of outward appearance but also fills a reader with hope.