The Museum of Extraordinary Things: A Novel

by Alice Hoffman

(Scribner, $27.99, 384 pages)

Who is this author?

Best-selling author Alice Hoffman is a popular and prolific writer, who uses her own version of magical realism in her stories of love and loss. Her 28 works, published in more than 20 translations and more than 100 foreign editions, include 18 novels, two story collections and eight books for children or young adult readers. Her novel, “Here on Earth,” was an Oprah Book Club choice and “Practical Magic” became a film with Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman. She lives in Boston and New York and often spends time on Cape Cod. A breast cancer survivor, she founded the Hoffman (Women’s Cancer) Center at Mt. Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, Mass.

What is this book about?

Set in the early 1900s in New York City, this is a tale of a young woman struggling to escape the schemes of her amoral father and a young man who rejects his stultifying Orthodox Jewish upbringing. It takes the length of the book for Coralie and Eddie to come together, and it’s the journey that captures the reader.

Coralie’s evil father runs The Museum of Extraordinary Things, a Coney Island boardwalk freak show that exploits its human exhibits. She has webbed fingers and is a talented swimmer: of course, her sinister dad tries to fashion her into a mermaid in the show. Eddie was apprenticed to a tailor but pursues photography as a way out of his close-minded community and shoots pictures of the chaos following the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911. Coralie meets him taking pictures of trees in the moonlight, and a long-suppressed romance begins in this story that explores both real and phony magic.

Why you’ll like it:

Hoffman’s fans, and they are legion, will flock to this novel. While reviewers say it is not her best, that will not matter to those who love her wounded protagonists and stories told with vivid lyrical style, which this one has in abundance. Hoffman blends historical realities with magical imagination here, and when it works, it makes for a powerful reading experience.

What others are saying:

Publishers Weekly says:  “Like the museum of its title, Hoffman’s latest novel is a collection of curiosities, each fascinating in its own right, but haphazardly connected as a whole. New York City in 1911 is caught between its future and its past: the last woods are threatened by sidewalks; sweatshops and child labor abuses give rise to a cruel division between rich and poor. Coralie Sardie’s father runs Coney Island’s Museum of Extraordinary Things, a sideshow exhibit of pickled and preserved wonders, as well as living freaks; Coralie’s own webbed hands lead her father to train her as a swimmer, billing her as “the Human Mermaid.” But Professor Sardie’s museum is threatened by the city’s changing tastes, and he becomes increasingly sinister in his control of Coralie and his plans for the museum’s future. In a parallel, hopscotching storyline, Eddie Cohen, a Russian Orthodox Jewish immigrant, abandons his father and his community and becomes a photographer, finding his purpose in the aftermath of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire and the search for one of its victims. Though both stories have Hoffman’s trademark magical realism and hold great potential, their connection is tenuous—literally and thematically—and their complexities leave them incompletely explored.”

Says Kirkus Reviews: “A young woman grows up in her father’s eponymous Coney Island museum at the turn of the 20th century in Hoffman’s novel. Watched over by her beloved but acid-scarred family housekeeper, motherless Coralie lives a seemingly idyllic early childhood with her intellectual father above the “museum” he runs but doesn’t let her visit. Then, on Coralie’s 10th birthday, in 1903, her father not only escorts her through the exhibit for the first time, but he also puts her on display as “The Human Mermaid.” Born with webbed fingers, Coralie, an expert swimmer, spends her days in a tank wearing her mermaid suit. At first, she loves the work, in what her father staunchly denies is a freak show, and becomes close to other members of the exhibition, particularly the “Wolfman,” with whom Coralie’s housekeeper falls in love. But as business flags, her father arranges special showings, during which adolescent Coralie must swim naked for invited male audiences. By 1911, her father, a Fagin-like villain who hopes to milk rumored sightings of a sea monster, sends Coralie into New York’s waters at odd hours disguised as the monster. On one of her nightly swims, Coralie comes ashore, discovers a young man with a camera at a campfire and is instantly smitten. Eddie Cohen, the son of an Orthodox Jew, has left behind his ethnic and spiritual roots to become a photographer. Motherless like Coralie, Eddie has also been employed in phony magic, in his case, finding missing persons for a fake seer. Their love affair and Coralie’s rebellion against her father play out in a changing New York City as seen through Eddie’s photographic lens.”

Library Journal says: “. . .Coralie Sardie works for her father, the “professor” and impresario of the Museum of Extraordinary Things, a freak show in Coney Island. She performs as a mermaid in a tank but really lives for her long swims in the cold Hudson River. While Coralie’s element is water, Eddie Cohen is tormented by fire. He fled a fiery pogrom in his native Russia and now wants to break away from his miserable life on the Lower East Side and become a photographer. Eddie’s hatred of rich factory owners increases when he takes photos of the ghastly fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in Greenwich Village. Meanwhile, Professor Sardie grows even more sinister as the crowds desert his “museum” for the new and lavish amusement palaces of Luna Park and Dreamland. Then Coralie and Eddie get caught up in the chaos as Dreamland burns to the ground. VERDICT With a sprinkling of magical realism, Hoffman blends social realism, historical fiction, romance, and mystery in a fast-paced and dramatic novel filled with colorful characters and vivid scenes of life in New York more than a century ago.”

“Alice Hoffman specializes in fairy tales for impressionable grown-ups and cautionary tales for precocious adolescents. Not infrequently, the two overlap. Her latest fiction for the former demographic, a melancholic love story that spotlights corruption and exploitative labor practices in 1911 New York City . . .  In conflating made-up characters with real-life incident and figures, Hoffman is trafficking more in the tabloid territory of Caleb Carr’s “The Alienist” than the impressionistic dabbling of E.L. Doctorow’s “Ragtime.” Like Carr, Hoffman’s book earns its legitimacy through an eye-opening plethora of period detailing, coupled with the author’s overarching outrage at urban workplace abuses. If “The Museum of Extraordinary Things” descends into high corn in its final stretch, you can’t help but admire the author’s fervor for telling stories and the democratic manner in which she disseminates the love of reading: Fiends and heroines alike lose themselves in great literature. A special place in her protagonist Coralie’s heart is reserved for Edgar Allen Poe, whose ghost hovers over the novel’s fiery climax with detectable satisfaction,” says the Boston Globe.”

When is it available?

You can find Hoffman’s latest at the Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Albany, Goodwin and Park branches.

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