The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
What is the difference between a freak and a monster? The difference is what lies beneath the surface of the skin. Coralie Sardie often refers to herself as a monster due to a birth defect that produced webbing between her fingers. In the year of 1911, her webbed fingers are a curiosity that lead to a childhood of exploitation. Forced to spend 8-hours each day as a “mermaid” performing in a tank in her father’s museum, she ends up with a naive and distorted worldview. Eddie Cohen, a Russian Immigrant, Orthodox Jew, and photographer, also has a distorted view of the world. His stems from tragedy and his experiences as an mistreated laborer in the garment district. Neither Coralie nor Eddie see their fathers for who they really are, and these misconceptions shape them as they struggle to come of age. Drawn together by the river, shaped by water and fire, these two characters eventually save each other.
The backdrop of their story is New York City in the year 1911. A year fraught with labor disputes and tragedy. An era where police were not public servants, but held in the employ of businessmen to do their bidding. Justice was hard to come by, if it existed at all. Women, children, and immigrants were commonly exploited. “Freaks” like Coralie were misunderstood, feared, and studied by the general public. They were commonly misused and abused in carnival side-shows. Despite these sad realities, it was a fascinating time.
Hoffman deftly captures the history, the heartache, and the struggle of these citizens while enlightening the reader as to the political and social realities of the time. Coralie and Eddie have their faults but are drawn with depth and empathy. Hoffman’s tendency to repeat (sometimes verbatim) information previously given and to intersperse factual data whenever possible regardless of its relevance to the story sometimes makes for cumbersome reading. The narrative thread is occasionally lost amidst all the information (however interesting it may sometimes be).
Most of the prose is fluid and, at times, nearly poetic in its imagery and word choice. The story even incorporates a bit of magical realism which is characteristic of Hoffman’s writing (along with her tendency to be didactic). Coralie and Eddie are unique characters who, while not always likeable, have points of view worth experiencing. The story was not only educational, it was immersive. Hoffman’s attention to detail rewards the reader with the sense of being in New York City in 1911 and experiencing a time and place both foreign and familiar. Highly recommended for fans of historical fiction. Also, while not all of those at book club liked the book, many did, and all agree that it made for a good discussion.
“My father was both a scientist and a magician, but he declared that it was in literature wherein we discovered our truest natures” (p. 2).
“I had a sense of where the lost might go, since I was, in my own way, one among them” (p. 13).
“If the ground split open beneath the Asch Building and took them all into the fires of hell, this day could not have seemed any more horrifying” (p. 174).
“My father, it seemed, did not shy away from helping nature create miracles. In this way he was a tailor of the marvelous, a creator of dreams” (p.104).
For more information and a synopsis of the book click here: http://alicehoffman.com/books/the-museum-of-extraordinary-things/synopsis/