The Museum of Extraordinary Things, Alice Hoffman
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.
I think I’ve demonstrated I’m a big fan of magical realism in my reading and this is what Alice Hoffman does best. This book was a wonderful mix of magic vs. science, of history and tragedy, and of love and romance. Coralie is raised in the Museum of Extraordinary Things on New York’s Coney Island and loves the wonders she sees– the birds, the Butterfly Girl who has no arms and even the Wolfman– even if she is not allowed to interact with them according to her father’s rules. As a child she doesn’t realize that what she calls wonders, others would call a freak show. This is a gift of Alice Hoffman’s, putting beauty in everything and in nearly every situation. Coralie feels lucky to join the Museum as a mermaid when she comes of age–until she realizes her father is not the man of science that he claims to be, but that she’s the daughter of a monster.
Each chapter starts with flashes back to childhood and then moves forward to the events of 1911. So when we meet Eddie Cohen, the photographer that captures Coralie’s heart, we already know that he was raised Ezekiel, an Orthodox Jew who escaped from Ukraine with his father. Eddie has tried to walk away from his past and his faith, but we see how those shape the man he is and the choices he makes once he witnesses the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire and begins searching for the missing Hannah. We also see Coralie progress from obedient child to a thoughtful and observant young woman; and we see her transform in her own mind from a freak of nature to a young woman able to give and receive love freely.
I really enjoyed following this story and I was so anxious after Coralie first spotted Eddie waiting for them to really meet. But this was much more than just a romantic love story, this touched on parental love, friendship and questions of faith. I was biting my nails in the final scenes waiting to see how it all could come out! I felt invested in all of the characters and even in the wonders of the Museum like the turtle in the end. The city of New York was a character itself in this book, from the entertainment on Coney Island, to the Jewish sections to Central Park, which made the historical aspect of this book really interesting, without being a typical historical fiction.
Thank you Netgalley and Scribner for this advanced read copy for review.