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Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2013-11-18
- Reviewer: Staff
Like the museum of its title, Hoffman’s (The Dovekeepers) latest novel is a collection of curiosities, each fascinating in its own right, but haphazardly connected as a whole. New York City in 1911 is caught between its future and its past: the last woods are threatened by sidewalks; sweatshops and child labor abuses give rise to a cruel division between rich and poor. Coralie Sardie’s father runs Coney Island’s Museum of Extraordinary Things, a sideshow exhibit of pickled and preserved wonders, as well as living freaks; Coralie’s own webbed hands lead her father to train her as a swimmer, billing her as “the Human Mermaid.” But Professor Sardie’s museum is threatened by the city’s changing tastes, and he becomes increasingly sinister in his control of Coralie and his plans for the museum’s future. In a parallel, hopscotching storyline, Eddie Cohen, a Russian Orthodox Jewish immigrant, abandons his father and his community and becomes a photographer, finding his purpose in the aftermath of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire and the search for one of its victims. Though both stories have Hoffman’s trademark magical realism and hold great potential, their connection is tenuous—literally and thematically—and their complexities leave them incompletely explored. (Feb.)
Lonely souls finding their way
BookPage Fiction Top Pick, March 2014
Alice Hoffman’s latest novel has the word “extraordinary” in the title for good reason: The best-selling author of The Dovekeepers has served up another historical novel that will dazzle readers until the last page. Set in New York City in the early 1900s, The Museum of Extraordinary Things veers from the extravagant mansions dotting the Upper West Side to the foul conditions of the overcrowded tenements on the Lower East Side to the seaside apartments stretched across Coney Island to tell the interwoven stories of Coralie Sardie and Eddie Cohen.
Coralie is the only child of a once-famous French magician who now runs The Museum of Extraordinary Things on Coney Island’s Surf Avenue. His curiosity show—packed with acts performed by so-called “freaks and oddities” like the Wolfman and Butterfly Girl—is being threatened by competing attractions that are being built nearby. Coralie was born with webbed hands, and unbeknownst to her, her father has been preparing her to one day become part of the museum. Nightly, Coralie is submerged in ice cold baths and forced to swim in the Atlantic Ocean in order to build up her tolerance to the cold and increase the strength of her lungs for holding her breath underwater.
On the Lower East Side, Eddie Cohen—a young Orthodox Jewish man who emigrated from Russia—has abandoned his job as a tailor, along with his father and his faith, to pursue a career in photography. Eddie spends his time photographing the crime beat for newspapers. As he is working the devastating Triangle Shirtwaist fire (which killed more than 100 young female laborers), Eddie is approached by a despondent father looking for his daughter. Despite his reluctance to get involved, Eddie finds himself agreeing to track her down. His investigation leads him to cross paths with Coralie, and both their lives are forever changed.
In The Museum of Extraordinary Things, both characters are searching for something. Coralie is desperate to escape from her father’s obsessive and abusive watch. Meanwhile, Eddie is attempting to make peace with himself and the fact that he abandoned not only his father, but also his God. As the two narratives gradually intertwine, Coralie and Eddie’s faith in both each other and themselves will be tested numerous times, only to come to an explosive head at the end of this powerful novel.