Review of The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman

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I saw the cover and read the first page, liked what I read so scooped this offering off the shelves in an impulsive moment. Would I enjoy it?

museumofextraNew York City, 1911. Meet Coralie, circus girl, web-fingered mermaid, shy only daughter of Professor Sardie and raised in the bizarre surroundings of his Museum of Extraordinary Things. And meet Eddie Cohen, a handsome young immigrant who has run away from his painful past and his Orthodox family to become a photographer, documenting life on the teeming city streets. One night by the freezing waters of the Hudson River, Coralie stumbles across Eddie, who has become enmeshed in the case of a missing girl, and the fates of these two outcasts collide as they search for their own identities in tumultuous times.

And there you have the slightly tweaked blurb. This story is told in through the viewpoints, both first and third person, of the two main protagonists, Coralie and Eddie. Hoffman has certainly done her homework and there is plenty of dense description of the early days of New York City as she pulls away from the immediacy of the first person viewpoints and into more a more panoramic, diffuse overview of their lives and the lives of those around them. However, I have to say that I found this switch from first into third person point of view for the same characters rather jarring and would have far preferred the immediacy and punch of the story if it had remained within the heads of the two fascinating characters caught up in this gothic tale. Much of the initial creepiness and isolation was diluted by packing in quite so much of the historical detail in the third person viewpoint.

Nevertheless this wasn’t the dealbreaker I at first feared it would be, for the simple reason that the main story running through this book is engrossing and original. Coralie and Eddie are both snared by their past, though Coralie’s plight is more extreme, being a virtual prisoner and forced to become an exhibit in her father’s freakshow as a mermaid. The rampant exploitation of anyone disadvantaged or weak is a strong theme throughout the book – perhaps rather heavy-handedly emphasised, as there is nothing subtle about Hoffman’s approach. However, there are some lyrically beautiful passages describing the marshy wilderness and wildlife on the margins of the then city, nowadays completely buried beneath tons of paving and concrete of Manhattan.

The fact remains that I finished reading this book several days ago and it still keeps popping into my head at odd moments. The intensity of the characters and gothic tone have woven a spell that won’t quite leave me alone, despite the book’s obvious flaws. I recommend it as an interesting, unusual read set in New York’s early years about two characters dealing with a bizarre situation that even today, would make headlines in all the newspapers.
7/10

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8 responses »

  1. This looks quite a lot of fun — thanks for the tip. I’m going to be in the library today, so will (if they have one) thumb through their copy to see if it’s as interesting as you make it sound!

      • Oh, poot, I forgot. It’s been roasting round here the past few days so that, as I ambled into the library, my mind was fuller of the warnings of my beloved of what husbands who left their wives sitting in the car too long (clue: the description wasn’t pretty) than the need to go look at this book. I’ll try again tomorrow . . .

      • lol… Know the feeling! Though I cannot conceive of a circumstance when I wouldn’t also be book browsing in the library – a highly satisfying activity and FAR better than sitting in the car…

      • Yes, well, I would say so too. And the library has air-conditioning. But Pam quails, I think, at the thought of the, oooo, 20 metres through the scorching heat to get there. I point out to her that, as a northern Scot, it out to be me who’s wimping from the heat, but for some reason this argument fails to prevail.

        I blame the parents.

  2. EDIT: Oh, poot, I forgot. It’s been roasting round here the past few days so that, as I ambled into the library, my mind was fuller of the warnings of my beloved about what happened to husbands who left their wives sitting in the car too long (clue: the description wasn’t pretty) than the need to go look at this book. I’ll try again tomorrow . . .

  3. lol… Though I’ve noticed that people vary wildly in their tolerance for heat and cold. As a half Scot, you’d think I would be the hardy type that strides around in bone puckering cold in a T shirt with lofty distain for the brisk conditions. And you’d be wrong. Despite the fact I go an unbecoming puce colour at the first sign of heat, I LOVE it. And absolutely dread the winter. I’m layered up like the Michelin Man most of the year… Even living down here on the south coast of England I spend far too much of my life shivering! So I have some sympathy for Pam’s horror of the heat – I am the same with the cold. Fortunately I have a very understanding husband who will put up with wandering around our tropically hot house in shorts and a T-shirt throughout the year:).

  4. Until a few years ago I did the wandering-around-in-a-teeshirt-even-in-the-depths-of-winter bit, but I have to confess to noticing the cold a bit more now, as I age and get steadily decrepiter.

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