Saturday, March 29, 2014

The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman

Set in 1911 New York City, we are first introduced to Coralie. She has been surrounded by the fantastic and unusual since childhood. Her father (The Professor), a self-proclaimed scientist and owner of The Museum of Extraordinary Things, collects “wonders” for his Coney Island boardwalk show and appeases the crowds with fantastic acts like The Wolfman, Butterfly Girl, and eventually, his daughter (the Human Mermaid). As years pass, the Professor feels pressure to provide the masses with something truly spectacular, or risk losing his already dwindling crowds. As he delves into more reprehensible practices to keep his profits alive, Coralie begins to strain under his suffocating control, wishing for a “normal” life that seems further and further from her grasp.

Eddie, a Russian immigrant escaping from his father and his Orthodox community, struggles to find a place in New York. But he finds his real passion in a chance encounter: photography. Studying under Moses Levy, Eddie begins to supplement his art by taking pictures for police and newspapers. This is how he comes to photograph the horror of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. In the chaos he is approached by a man from his old neighborhood who knows his reputation for “finding things.” He’s desperate to find his missing daughter, who wasn’t among the deceased, and Eddie is reluctantly forced to accept the task.

Eddie’s search for the missing girl eventually leads him to Coney Island and to Coralie, and the two start a passionate and dangerous affair. Though brimming with dramatic tension as the reader waits for these two to find each other, this book is as much a story of individuals as it is about romance. Set in a time of change and often precarious fortunes, it was the character’s back stories and inner monologues (Hoffman tells the story from multiple points of view) that I found the most engaging.

This story is gritty (as, I imagine, most lives were in turn of the century New York) and the characters survive sadness and struggle throughout the book. But, even so, Hoffman manages to create a story that is magical amongst the chaos. For those who have read her previous works, you’ll see her lyrical style come through. This is a great read for all Hoffman fans, for those looking for new historical fiction, or just those looking for a fully intoxicating read.

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