The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman
Genre: Adult Historical Fiction
Release date: February 18 2014
Source: e-ARC via Edelweiss
The nitty-gritty: A magical history of Brooklyn, filled with mysteries and monsters, written in Alice Hoffman’s incomparable style.
It was hard to believe that the teeming streets of lower Manhattan were less than a day’s walk from what was still a sort of wilderness. The wild tulip trees were two hundred feet tall. There were said to be bear here, come down from the Palisades in the winter, crossing the Hudson when it froze, along with wild turkeys, fox, muskrats, and deer. I thought of the forests of the Ukraine, where cuckoos sung in the trees and owls glided through the dark. My father and I had stopped to make camp for several nights on our travels. I was only a small child, but it was there, listening to the voice of the forest, that I had lost the ability to sleep.
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.
Check out the cool UK cover!
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!
And here are several other Alice Hoffman books I highly recommend:
Big thanks to the publisher for supplying a review copy. The above quote was taken from an uncorrected proof and may differ in the final book.
Don’t forget to stop back here in the beginning of March to enter my February Review Giveaway, where you will have a chance to win a copy of one of the books I reviewed this month, including this one!
Find The Museum of Extraordinary Things here: