The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman is another example of this author’s prose and storytelling genius. Though smaller in scope than The Dovekeepers and The Marriage of Opposites, it is none the less a tale of great emotion and great tragedy. A tale of hope and new beginnings. A tale of redemption and the chance for freedom and love.
It is simply, a damn good story.
Coralie Sardie is the daughter of the owner of the side show attraction known as the Museum of Extraordinary Things. She is an exceptional swimmer and has the ability to hold her breath underwater for longer than most people, this with the webbing in her hands has her billed in her father’s museum as a living mermaid. Also to be found in her father’s side show are performers like a Wolfman, the Butterfly girl and creatures both real and created by the Professor, Coralie’s father. To escape this world, Coralie goes for nightly swims in the Hudson river.
On one such night, Coralie spies a young man in the woods surrounding the Hudson, camping out with his dog and photographing the area and the Bay. For once, in her sheltered life, Coralie feels the beginnings of love in her heart.
Eddie Cohen is a Jewish Russian immigrant who has left behind his father, his faith and his job as a tailor’s apprentice. He worked for sometime as a young runner for a local Jewish man who promised he could find missing husbands and children. Finding people is something Eddie learns he has a gift for. But what he wants to do, what he learns he has a passion for is photography. And soon Eddie finds a gifted photographer to learn under. To make ends meet he takes a job as a photographer for the local news papers and one night, he witness the horrifying devastation of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. Eddie photographs the garment workers, many of them his own people, locked in by the owners, burning alive are throwing themselves from many stories up, to the pavement below.
Horrified by the tragedy, Eddie’s hatred for the ruling class of New York and his father’s willingness to knuckle under them is intensified. All that changes one night when he hears a knock on his door. It is an elderly Jewish man of the Orthodox community that his father belongs to. The man explains that his daughter went missing the night of the fire and though she was suppose to working that night in the factory, her body was not among the dead. He begs Eddie to find her. He explains that he comes to Eddie at the bidding of Eddie’s father.
Reluctantly Eddie agrees to search for the man’s daughter, but in doing so he begins a journey toward redemption, toward understanding and toward love. In his search, Eddie will find the depths of his heart when he encounters the young girl Coralie. He will also find the darkest depths of human depravity as he encounters her father, the Professor Sardie.
Alice Hoffman is capable of writing about the most depraved and inhuman moments and yet make them beautiful. The description of the oddities in the Museum of Extraordinary Things makes each and every one of these characters something spectacular and yet, incredibly human. It is the regular people, who are in fact, the monsters. The treatment of these oddities by the customers and by Professor Sardie himself is cruel and heartless. It is through the treatment the oddities offer one another and the world around them that Coralie learns to love. When she sees Eddie for the first time she is immediately in love. He is to her, the most beautiful thing in the world. When he sees her, he feels the same, but it is in their journey to freedom that they both learn that love is far more than the outer trappings, that it is inside themselves they must search to find their true selves.
The problem with finding a writer of such talent such as Alice Hoffman is that there is no one else to compare her to and so he begin to compare her work to her prior work. In this, The Museum of Extraordinary Things may come up short. The Dovekeepers and Marriage of Opposites are epic and two of the best books I have ever read. Their scope and depth are far beyond what most books on the market outside the realm of fantasy offer to the reader. The Museum of Extraordinary Things is smaller in scope but in doing so, Hoffman has made it so much more intimate. You are heavily invested in the characters. In their hope and in their pain. What makes Eddie and Coralie so beautiful is their vulnerability. Their sad belief that they are not worthy of being loved.
Hoffman has also done a masterful work in her villain in this novel. Professor Sardie is someone you will loathe. His treatment of the people who work for him and his use of Coralie will have the reader saddened and outraged. More so because he is simply human. A man whose greed and prejudices give him the license to treat others in a manner that is both abhorrent and far too common.
Lastly, Hoffman is a master at setting. Time and place. New York, at a time when the wild woods of the Hudson still existed and when people were willing to believe that monsters lived in their midst.
A wonderful and terrific read.