Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Review: The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman

Title:  The Museum of Extraordinary Things
Author: Alice Hoffman
Published February 18th 2014 by Scribner
ISBN: 1451693583 (ISBN13: 9781451693584)
Pages: 384 pages 
How I Read It: eARC copy 
Genre: historical – fiction, mystery and romance

Coney Island, 1911: Coralie Sardie is the daughter of a self-proclaimed scientist and professor who acts as the impresario of The Museum of Extraordinary Things, a boardwalk freak show offering amazement and entertainment to the masses. An extraordinary swimmer, Coralie appears as the Mermaid alongside performers like the Wolfman, the Butterfly Girl,and a 100 year old turtle, in her father's "museum". She swims regularly in New York's Hudson River, and one night stumbles upon a striking young man alone in the woods photographing moon-lit trees. From that moment, Coralie knows her life will never be the same.

The dashing photographer Coralie spies is Eddie Cohen, a Russian immigrant who has run away from his father's Lower East Side Orthodox community. As Eddie photographs the devastation on the streets of New York following the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, he becomes embroiled in the mystery behind a young woman's disappearance and the dispute between factory owners and labourers. In the tumultuous times that characterized life in New York between the world wars, Coralie and Eddie's lives come crashing together in Alice Hoffman's mesmerizing, imaginative, and romantic new novel.

Our thoughts:

Set in 1911 New York City, the author frames her tale between two massive fires which effected the area at that time: the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, which claimed the lives of many young garment workers, and the Dreamland Fire, which devastated Coney Island. Over the handful of months separating these two fires, the story follows the lives of two young people, Coralie Sardie and Ezekiel (Eddie) Cohen.

Coralie’s strange and domineering father owns the museum featured in the title of the book and uses it to showcase his “living wonders.” “My father called them wonders but to the world they were freaks – they were unique and fascinating and terribly brave in the ways they revealed their most secret selves.” Coralie herself “was her father’s daughter, a living wonder, an oddity no common man could ever understand” - or so she thought. Her father keeps her under strict control and has been secretly training her from a young age to take her place as the Mermaid in his display of wonders. She eventually does just that, and is forced by her father to perform in ways she never imagined, making her long to escape to another life.

Eddie, who came to this country from Russia along with his father, ends up disowning his religion and his father and sets out to find his own way as a photographer: “He yearned for the ability to see into the world of shadows…he saw only the light, darkness, black or while and all that lay in between was invisible to his eyes…Eddie’s purpose was to pursue the light and find what was lost….to see true beauty of the world and…to capture a single moment of that beauty”. As he strives to do so, he also struggles to determine “Was the future set or could a man change his destiny and make his own decisions as to what came next?”

Their tales are told alternately, with glimpses into each of their pasts as well as their internal dialogues, until the two of them are eventually brought together while uncovering the mystery behind the disappearance of a young woman. They immediately fall in love, and both learn that all is not as it has seemed in either of their lives.

This novel was interesting and beautifully told. Hoffman’s evocative descriptions of the horrific fires are truly remarkable. She captures the scenes so perfectly you feel as if you are standing next to the characters and experiencing the events right along with them. It was fascinating to read about the aspects of life in Coney Island at that time, as well as the rivalries between the parks and attractions.

We did have some issues with the evolution of the relationship between the two leads (the ‘love at first sight’ aspect rang a bit hollow for us), and the lack of a true reconciliation between Eddie and his father was bothersome, even though such a reunion was implied. The ending also seemed somewhat rushed, with all loose ends tied up a little too quickly and neatly in one all-encompassing letter. In spite of this, however, we liked this book overall and feel it should more than satisfy the reader interested in this period of history and also those who are looking for some romance mixed with mystery. And we found it very rewarding to watch the main characters learn the important underlying lesson:

“You are who you are, whatever you’re called.”

Our Rating

No comments:

Post a Comment