Why I Read It: The description of this book drew me in as I always find oddity shows interesting.
Where I Got It: Review copy from the publisher (thanks!).
Who I Recommend This To: Interested in the less well known populace of 1911 New York City? Check this book out.
Publisher: Simon & Schuster (2014)
Length: 12 hours 18 minutes
This tale follows two people as they try to make sense of their lives in 1911 New York City. Coralie is the daughter of Professor Sardie who is the mastermind behind the Museum of Extraordinary Things, which is located on Coney Island. While the reader meets her as a young lady, we have glimpses of her childhood; from a young age, she has been swimming, learning to hold her breath ever longer, and attuning herself to chill waters. By 1911, she is a remarkable swimmer who frequents the Hudson River. She soon joins the Wolfman, the Siamese Twins, and the Butterfly Girl in her father’s daily show; her part is the Mermaid. Eddie Cohen (born Izkiel) fled the Ukraine with his father after his village was burned to the ground. Immigrating to the US, they become slave-wage workers in a clothing factory. Eddie eventually leaves that life, his religion, and his father to seek out something more and stumbles into a stable and the life of a photographer. By the time we meet Eddie in 1911 NYC, he is a photographer in his own right, having learned the skill and craft well from his mentor.
This was my first Alice Hoffman book but it will not be my last. The Museum of Extraordinary Things is a tale of the human spirit, the limits it can be pushed to, and the simple, beautiful things that bring it back to life. OK, it’s about more than that. Hoffman captures the essence of 1911 New York from the working person’s point of view, using characters that were considered the outcasts of the mainstream. Coralie, born to the life of the ‘freak show’, doesn’t really see her coworkers as people first. Maureen, her constant companion and the all-around maid of the house, has been scarred by acid many years ago. the Wolfman, Mr. Morris, is well-read and a proper gentleman at all times, except when doing his daily show for the Museum of Extraordinary Things, at which sits in a cage and growls at the paying crowds. The Museum was also filled with other odd things such as rare birds and insects, and taxidermied beasts (Professor Sardie may have modified with big wolf or shark teeth).
I was fascinated by Coralie’s life. At first, she is simple, having been told a simple, but beautiful, story of her dead mother and how her father and her came from France to New York. Coralie’s mild deformity is a gift, one that allows her to entrance the public and her father puts it to good use. However, as the story moves forward and Coralie starts to push against her father’s rules, she starts to see him as the egotistical control freak that he is. The Museum slowly changes from a place of wonder and magic to a place of oppression as Professor Sardie squeezes every coin he can from his workers, his creations, and the public.
It took me longer to warm up to Eddie. Perhaps I didn’t immediately see the charm in this young man who severed himself from his emotions at such a young age. In many ways, he is a man of two worlds. He sees, vaguely and always in the distance, what life could have been for his father and himself – both pursuing the scholarly Jewish life. On another path, he could have stayed with his father, stayed in the Jewish quarter, and stayed working at the clothing factory. But he had to walk away from that life too. He found magic and beauty in photography and was lucky enough to find a mentor willing to teach him. He is a full photographer when the historical Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire occurs.
I had not heard about this factory fire before reading this book, even though the aftermath of this event was instrumental in setting safety standards for workers. It was described so well, raising the hairs on the back of my neck. This event and other historical bits from the time were effortlessly woven into the storyline. Out of this also comes a murder mystery which made for an interesting side plot.
The ending was horrific, terrifying, filled with hope, and satisfying. Deeply satisfying. I was horrified by the tragedy that wraps up this tale (I’ll leave that for you to discover). I was terrified that my two lead characters may not make it out alive. I had also become attached to Maureen, Mr. Morris, the tortoise, and Mitts (Eddie’s pitbull). How would they all make it out of this book alive, healthy, sane? But there was hope as these characters rallied together, along with other side characters. And the ending gave me great satisfaction as I felt the main evil doers got some decent payback.
Narration: The narration on this book was excellent. I can’t fault any of the narrators. Having three allowed the listener to easily follow the different view points. The three narrators each managed to give Coralie a young voice and Eddie a jaded voice. The characters’ voices were distinct.
What I Liked: Coralie was instantly likeable; Eddie’s dog Mitts won several characters’ hearts; the mystique of the Museum of Extraordinary Things; Mr. Morris and his love of books; Coralie’s mysterious past; learning about the Triangle Factory fire; the ending was quite satisfactory.
What I Disliked: This is a very small point: the murder subplot is pushed along by a convenient character popping up and providing key information that allows the murder to be solved. In this one regard, the subplot felt manufactured. But this one tiny criticism will not keep me from reading more Hoffman.
What Others Think: