on February 18, 2014
Turn of the 20th Century Coney Island. A young woman trained to impersonate a mermaid. A Jewish photographer, refugee from Ukrainian pograms, fleeing his own cultural heritage. A former mob boss turned horse-whisperer. A highly cultivated wolf-man, whose life has been transformed by Jane Eyre. A hermit with a pet wolf. The Triangle Shirtwaist fire. A mysterious disappearance. What more do I have to tell you to get you to reach for this book?
Alice Hoffman’s The Museum of Extraordinary Things is an extraordinary thing itself. Yes, it has all of the above elements, any one of which would make me pick it up in a bookstore and think about making a purchase. What it also has is a rich storyline, with engaging, complicated characters, and a trio of narrative voices that leave one hungry for more.
The first two characters I mentioned, the mermaid and the photographer, provide two of the narrative voices. The third is a traditional omniscient narrator. Each chapter opens in one of the two character voices, then transitions to the omniscient narrator. In odd-numbered chapters we get the mermaid. In even-numbered chapters we get the photographer. And each of the three voices sings, distinct and true, creating a story that lets us move in and out of the hearts of its characters, seeing events from multiple perspectives.
The Museum of Extraordinary Things balances dark and light. It’s full of menace, but never becomes hopeless. This is one of those novels that’s worth purchasing while it’s still only available in hardback.
This is a very interesting book and semi-historical account, where the author has used a liberal amount of creative license and a great deal of personal research to create an intriguing story which will captivate most readers. Set at the beginning of the 1900’s on Long Island, NY, Coralie is the daughter of a sinister father who owns and runs a “Freak Show” on the Coney Island Board Walk. Coaralie, performing as a mermaid, is one of the acts in her father’s show. Along comes Eddie, a Jewish-Russian immigrant, who is a light-hearted artistic soul struggling as an apprentice to his father who is a demanding tailor. The unusual characters, original plot and subplots are beautifully interwoven to form, perhaps, one of the best new novels of 2014. Destined to become a NYT bestseller this year.
on March 28, 2014
I have really liked the other novels of Alice Hoffman's that I have read, but unfortunately didn't enjoy this one. It progressed too slowly, and the level of descriptive detail in the story began to feel indulgent or self-conscious in some way, rather than poetic or lyrical. To be sure, Ms. Hoffman brings 1911 New York alive, and I liked that she grounded the story in two real historical events - a shirtwaist factory fire that fueled the workers' rights movement, and a huge Coney Island fire. Her characters are also very well-wrought, from the Coney Island show 'freaks' that we get to know as real men and women, to a Jewish mystic from the lower East side Orthodox community, to the hermits in upper Manhattan, still living in the forest, before the city has fully taken over. But the compelling historical setting and characters didn't make up for the slow pace for me.
The story moves back and forth between the lives of 2 characters - a young woman with webbed hands who is featured as a fish-girl in the Coney Island museum her father runs, and a young man who has abandoned his Jewish Orthodox upbringing, now working as a crime photographer on the fringes of society. Each of their stories is told in part in first person as if they are reminiscing about their past, and in part through a third person narrator. We know early on that these two are destined to be together, but they do not actually meet until the 60% into the book (I checked.) That was much too long of a lead-in for me, and I had almost abandoned the book before this. To be sure, it picked up in the last 40%, and the last few chapters made it almost worth it. But even in those, the writing and level of detail began to feel like an obstacle. So unfortunately for me this was just so-so overall, with both good points and bad points.
on February 28, 2014
The nitty-gritty: A magical history of Brooklyn, filled with mysteries and monsters, written in Alice Hoffman’s incomparable style.
Alice Hoffman used to be one of my favorite authors before I started blogging. I’ve read many of her books (although not all—she’s written over thirty!), but as book bloggers know, once you start accepting books for review, many of your favorite authors fall by the wayside. But when this one came up on Edelweiss, I knew it was time to make time for Hoffman again. And I’m so glad I did. Reading The Museum of Extraordinary Things was like a balm on my soul. Hoffman’s familiar writing style is so comforting, and even though this book lacked the magic realism that she’s known for, I found myself loving every word.
The story takes place in Brooklyn, New York in the year 1911, but flashes back to the early lives of the two main characters, as we get to know more about their family histories. Coralie is eighteen and has been part of her father’s Museum of Extraordinary Things as a sideshow attraction for nearly half her life. She is the “human mermaid,” forced to wear a fake mermaid tale and swim in a tank of water for hours a day. At night, Coralie practices swimming in the freezing Hudson River in order to increase her lung capacity, while dreaming of an easier life that doesn’t include being exploited by her strict father.
Parallel to Coralie’s story we meet Eddie, a refugee from the Ukraine who has become adept at taking journalistic photographs of crime scenes. When Eddie is hired by a stranger to find a missing girl named Hannah, Eddie’s and Coralie’s lives become linked through a series of events. As Hoffman reveals bit by bit what happened to Hannah, the paths of Eddie and Coralie slowly come together, before the mystery is solved.
Hoffman has clearly done tons of research for her book. One of my favorite things about the story was the amount of historical detail she wove into the narrative. Clearly 1911 was a great year for story fodder, because a lot of horrific (but interesting!) things take place. Focusing her writer’s lens on Brooklyn, and in particular on Coney Island, the author includes such historic events as the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, the opening (and closing!) of the ambitious amusement park Dreamland, and the battle of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union to secure safe working conditions for girls and women in factories. Let’s just say I learned a lot reading this book! You can tell that Hoffman loves New York and is passionate about the dangers young factory workers faced near the turn of the century. Some of her descriptions of the city are so detailed, it’s almost as if she herself had stepped back in time to take notes.
If you’re looking for a fast-paced book, however, you need to keep looking. And this is not a criticism by any means. One of Hoffman’s skills is her ability to develop her plot and characters slowly in such a way that the reader never gets bored, but instead savors each discovery, knowing that the mystery will eventually be revealed.
The story construction was hard to get used to at first, I’ll admit. Each chapter focuses on either Coralie or Eddie, and switches back and forth between the two. The first part of the chapter is told in first person, as the character tells us about his or her past, and the second part switches to third person and takes place in the present. This jumping around confused me at first, but once I understood what the author was doing, it all made sense.
Hoffman is brilliant at introducing small details, and then pulling them through the story. For example, when Eddie is a boy working as a tailor in a factory, he steals an expensive pocket watch from the factory owner’s son. This watch pops up again and again during Eddie’s story, as he struggles with the idea of whether or not to return it. Hoffman is such a seasoned writer (she’s been writing books for over forty years!) that it’s no surprise that nothing in this story is random. Every item, every detail, and every character is there for a reason.
As with most of Hoffman’s novels, romance eventually blooms between Coralie and Eddie, but it’s agonizingly slow (until they actually meet—then it almost feels like instalove!) and things don’t go quite the way you expect them to. The author often writes about love and how it can be found in the most unexpected of places, and this novel is no exception.
There are so many things to discover in this book, and I’ve barely scratched the surface with this review. Simply put, The Museum of Extraordinary Things was a treat to read. It made me happy—despite the unhappy moments—and I am anxiously awaiting Hoffman’s next book. Don’t miss this one!
Big thanks to the publisher for supplying a review copy.
on February 25, 2014
I’m a big fan of magical realism in my reading and this is what Alice Hoffman does best. This book was a wonderful mix of magic vs. science, of history and tragedy, and of love and romance. Coralie is raised in the Museum of Extraordinary Things on New York’s Coney Island and loves the wonders she sees– the birds, the Butterfly Girl who has no arms and even the Wolfman– even if she is not allowed to interact with them according to her father’s rules. As a child she doesn’t realize that what she calls wonders, others would call a freak show. This is a gift of Alice Hoffman’s, putting beauty in everything and in nearly every situation. Coralie feels lucky to join the Museum as a mermaid when she comes of age–until she realizes her father is not the man of science that he claims to be, but that she’s the daughter of a monster.
Each chapter starts with flashes back to childhood and then moves forward to the events of 1911. So when we meet Eddie Cohen, the photographer that captures Coralie’s heart, we already know that he was raised Ezekiel, an Orthodox Jew who escaped from Ukraine with his father. Eddie has tried to walk away from his past and his faith, but we see how those shape the man he is and the choices he makes once he witnesses the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire and begins searching for the missing Hannah. We also see Coralie progress from obedient child to a thoughtful and observant young woman; and we see her transform in her own mind from a freak of nature to a young woman able to give and receive love freely.
I really enjoyed following this story and I was so anxious after Coralie first spotted Eddie waiting for them to really meet. But this was much more than just a romantic love story, this touched on parental love, friendship and questions of faith. I was biting my nails in the final scenes waiting to see how it all could come out! I felt invested in all of the characters and even in the wonders of the Museum like the turtle in the end. The city of New York was a character itself in this book, from the entertainment on Coney Island, to the Jewish sections to Central Park, which made the historical aspect of this book really interesting, without being a typical historical fiction.
on April 6, 2014
Hoffman's book too frequently seems to lose focus regarding why she is writing it. Too much of the book centers around information the reader doesn't really need and drifts off as though she's lost track of the plot. I was sorely disappointed. I think the book had the potential to be Really Spooky but didn't even come close to that. Hoffman doesn't Show in this book. She tells. The ending, which I won't divulge, is pathetically weak and poorly developed. Hoffman is mechanically, a good writer. In this book, she doesn't seem to know how to develop a story and follows too many tributaries. I do not recommend it.
on April 10, 2014
Having read the sample on my Kindle, I thought this was going to be a book I'd enjoy. Sadly, I was wrong. While the sample was intriguing, the book was often boring and rambling. I kept waiting for the plot to take off, but it never did. The pacing was just too slow for my taste. I should have stopped reading after page 100 or so, but kept with it as I was hopeful the book would get better and that there would be a good payoff. I was very disappointed. I often gravitate towards dark, haunting books, but Museum just didn't make it for me. This may sound strange, but I did enjoy the writing. There was a lyrical quality to it that I appreciated. Not so much the way the chapters were structured, though, with a first person narrator at the beginning of each chapter followed by a 3rd person narrator to end the chapters. The transitions were a bit abrupt initially. I got used to this style, but didn't especially like it.
The spirit of the book reaches us in the wonderment of the daily, in the museum of extraordinary things that is our world. It is 1911 and Coralie is an exhibit in her father's museum. Due to the fickle nature of the public, she must change identities regularly. In assuming a new "freakish" persona, she immerse herself in each world. Eddie Cohen starts as the property of his father in the immigrant struggle for work on New York City. He has also served his father his father as his second right arm until the day he must leave.
Their world as viewed through Their eyes contains a web of sights that lead the reader close into the back room niches of their time. The enmeshment of the luminous and the degraded make this book a masterful work. I love the character Coralie with her melding of the brave and the fearful. Hers is a brave new world of opening horizons as the great immigrations to the United States change it forever. Eddie is a perfect counter part having left his prison in toughness to find another dimension in his skin.
The prose is lovely. I have always liked Hoffman's writing which lives in that luminal world of almost mystic but planted in reality. It is the " almost mystic" we see through her eyes. Hoffman sets the piece off with the very real misery of a crowded city without safety provisions for any who fall. She made a world within the streets of the city in which the reader can wander. Hoffman's words are not wasted, and she avoids the trap of pathos or the perils of precious, fey language. Obviously I liked this work of Hoffman's very much.
on November 28, 2015
This was a very interesting story. The descriptions of NY at the turn of the century were so vivid. It really was a story about a whole other world that most people don't think of when they think of NY. I'm from NY and it still made me want to go research more of what NY was about and what it looked like during the turn of the century. I learned so much about my hometown that I never new before.
I read this novel a little bit slower than I normally do though because I didn't fall in love with the characters. I wasn't very interested in them. I feel there was too much going on and the characters weren't developed enough. I've read other Alice Hoffman books and felt the same way about too many characters that aren't developed enough but I was still interested in the characters that were developed. With this one I didn't feel this way. At times I was just reading it to get it over with.
on May 3, 2014
Well written but not something I truly enjoyed. My interest was in the historical accuracy, particularly the factory fire, and the early Coney Island days. Unlikely villains and silly love story left me cold. I am simply not this author's audience.