Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman

Here's an author I can always count on to take me away to other times in history. In Alice Hoffman's latest book, The Museum of Extraordinary Things, the reader is transported to 1911 Manhattan and the attractions at Coney Island. With all the rapid social and industrial changes in North America, early 1900s is one is one of the most interesting eras to read about. And what Alice Hoffman does so well (as she also did with The Dovekeepers) is to set her narrative to the backdrop of actual places and historical events, in this case the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire and the Coney Island Dreamland fire, two tragedies that frame the story of Coralie Sardie and Eddie Cohen.

Coralie was born with deformed, webbed hands and has been her father, professor Sardie's, freak show project her entire life. He is the owner and curator of a Coney Island boardwalk attraction called the Museum of Extraordinary Things where he houses and displays various  animal and human curiosities from around the world, many of which are Coralie's only friends. The professor builds a large tank and fashions a 'fishtail' for Coralie's lower body to display her as a mermaid. He also pushes her to practice holding her breath and to swim the icy waters of the Hudson river in all weather, an activity she comes to enjoy for the solitude it affords her. Coralie's life is very much prescribed, exploited and hidden but she gains a sense of the world outside her father's grasp, from books and stories brought in to the museum by the other performers and employees, and from Eddie, the mysterious young photographer she spies on the banks of the Hudson.

Eddie Cohen's narrative alternates with Coralie's beginning with a seemingly unrelated event. He takes photos of the devastation at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory after a fire on the 8th, 9th, and 10th floors kills 146 mostly immigrant women and girls, many of them jumping to their deaths on the street below. One of the girls is not accounted for and Eddie believes he might be able to find out what happened, for he too has spied a mystery on the Hudson.

Part history, part murder mystery, part love story, The Museum of Extraordinary Things is all Alice Hoffman. The only issue I have is not so much in the alternating viewpoints (a former peeve of mine that I have come to accept and even appreciate when the writing is good) but in the alternating perspectives between the chapters as well. Some are written in first-person, others in third. I found it a disorienting way to absorb the story. However, the writing is lovely, the characters are well developed and the attention to place and detail is spot-on. Hoffman addresses the harsh realities of life for young people and immigrants, factory workers and circus performers early in the last century. I think fans will recognize and enjoy the human touch Hoffman so often brings to her works of historical fiction.


Heidi’sbooks said...

Thanks for the review! Is this her newest book? The Dovekeepers was one of my top books of 2013.

Trish said...

Yes, it's her newest book. If you liked Dovekeepers, I think you'll like this one also.