The Museum of Extraordinary Things
The Museum of Extraordinary Things: A Novel by Alice Hoffman. (Scribner, 368 pp. $27.99)
Two horrific disasters—the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of March 1911 that took 147 young lives and the raging inferno two months later that devoured Dreamland, a dazzling Coney Island amusement park—bookend The Museum of Extraordinary Things, Alice Hoffman’s latest blending of history and novelistic creativity. And a wondrous roller-coaster ride it is.
Mixing the New York immigrant experience, the fate of two independence-seeking children of Old World parents and the search for a missing girl, Hoffman conjures up a poignant world of characters who are less-than-perfect physically and emotionally. There are those who seek acceptance and those who deliberately mislead: charlatans, fakers and miscreants. These lives intersect in italicized flashbacks as the narratives unfold.
If you think you knew Coney Island from childhood visits, think again. Go back 100 years, when recent arrivals from Europe found homes and solace on the Lower East Side and picture the Poor Man’s Riviera, with hucksters and schemers, lowlifes and villains, eking out a living in shady operations. Add sinister characters in macabre freak shows, bootleggers, heiresses, thugs and parvenu, and you get an idea of this eerie setting.
Two characters dominate the action. One is Coralie, the daughter of the bizarre Professor Sardie, who runs the “museum,” a collection of live unfortunates and inanimate “wonders.” The other is Eddie Ezekiel, the son of an Orthodox Jewish tailor who flees his home and earns a living by finding lost children. Then, as a photographer’s apprentice, he shows up at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire and photographs the trapped workers as they plunge to their death.
The prolific Hoffman (this is her 29th book; read our interview with the author), a diligent researcher who knows a thing or two about scoundrels and rogues, folds the stories of Coralie and Eddie into a romantic adventure and intricate mystery in which New York and the Hudson River become major characters. Hoffman is known for resolving her characters’ difficulties and providing a judicious ending. This book will not disappoint.
Readers are likely to identify and sympathize with Coralie, who has a relatively minor deformity—she was born with webbed fingers. From childhood, Coralie was trained by Sardie to be the star attraction of his boardwalk sideshow, a human mermaid, or girlfish, who can swim five miles in the chilly Hudson in November or stay submerged for long periods with the aid of a secret breath inhaler. But as she matures, and as the museum falters financially, Sardie degrades her by having her perform in the nude for a select, high-paying clientele. “I fell in love with the Hudson,” Coralie says. “Because of the nights I swam there, I no longer was forced to perform, and so I began to think of the river as my savior.” At that point, Sardie’s days and nights of domination are numbered.
By contrast, Eddie is living on the margins when he is asked to ascertain the fate of a girl who disappeared after the fire. Eddie agrees and, using his wiles, cunning and photography skills, pieces together the story of the missing woman and how her remains wound up in Sardie’s basement. Sardie, in seeking to invigorate the failing box office lost to Dreamland and other amusement parks, was trying to create a “Hudson Monster” to be his feature attraction.
Through unplanned circumstance, Coralie and Eddie’s paths cross—she discovers the body of the missing girl and he learns her identity. Their love blossoms as Coralie discovers the truth about her birth and jettisons Sardie. Eddie, who renounced his father and sought
success by looking out for himself, is eventually convinced that it makes sense to forgive his father’s alleged transgressions in the name of religion and reconcile with him.
Coralie and Eddie find their freedom, Coralie from under Sardie’s thumb, and Eddie from alienation and loneliness (“I had become someone else, but who was that someone?”).
Hoffman exhibits compassion for the exploited; a hairy “wolfman,” for example, whom Sardie displays, is soft-spoken and quotes Whitman and Shakespeare. He falls in love with Coralie’s nanny, a woman whose face was scarred by acid but who retains a sense of humor while dispensing motherly love. These so-called freaks show the most humanity in this sometimes sordid tale.
Blending history and mystery is not new but Hoffman has framed her story in a pivotal time with rich prose and seamless verisimilitude.