The Museum of Extraordinary Things
By Alice Hoffman
Scribner February 2014
From the library
Two stories come together in a surprising and dazzling fashion in Alice Hoffman's newest novel The Museum of Extraordinary Things. Our heroine is the sheltered Coralie, who is a part of her father's Coney Island museum where the extraordinary and bizarre come out of the shadows. Coralie has webbed fingers and at her father's prompting, has trained herself to swim for extreme distances. She spends her days inside a tank in the museum, billed as a "mermaid." In the heart of New York City, Eddie Coen has escaped from his father and their traditional Orthodox lives to work among the city's thieves and runaways. When he becomes an apprentice to the famed photographer Moses Levy, he finds himself taking photographs of the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire and drawn into a mystery that will change his life forever.
As I started reading this book, my first reaction was that this story was not as good as my favorite Hoffman book The Dovekeepers. And perhaps it's not. But that doesn't mean that you should leave this book by the wayside because it's still a strong story that will effortlessly draw you into 1911 New York City. There is a tension throughout the entire book between fire and water - the inferno that claimed the lives of the girls at the factory and the water where Coralie spends much of her time swimming. At some point in the novel, I found myself quickly flipping pages because Hoffman had made me care about these characters.
This book achieves the difficult feat of being both too long and too short. There were parts where I thought that the story was really meandering. But I wanted more of the auxiliary characters - the household servants who love and help Coralie, her dastardly father Professor Sardie, the men and women who are on exhibit at the museum, and the denizens of the underworld where Eddie lives and works. Our protagonists seemed like they were holding the door open so that we could peer into fascinating worlds, but the door was only open for a few brief pages.
The Museum of Extraordinary Things would not be my suggestion for a reader who is just discovering what Hoffman can do with words and characters and magic. There are other stories that are stronger and more enduring. But this is a good book, one that reminds us of the power of human connection and the talent with which Ms. Hoffman can bring history to vivid and terrible life.