It is not what you have lost; it is what is still to be found. ~Hochman to Eddie
Oh Alice Hoffman how I enjoy your stories!!! Thank you so much to Susan at Audiojukebox and Simon and Schuster Audio for sending us the EXCELLENT audio presentation of The Museum of Extraordinary Things.
Alice Hoffman’s latest novel The Museum of Extraordinary Things takes place in one of the most interesting times and settings — New York City at the turn of the century. This story is a perfect historical fiction complete with Hoffman’s trademark magical realism peppered throughout. The historical events were two notable fires that took place in New York City in 1911 — one at The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory (a tragic event that made way for the Unions to implement improved factory safety standards) and the other at Coney Island’s Dreamland Amusement Park (the rival business of the fictional museum of the novel’s title). I never really knew anything about these famous fires which made it all the more interesting for me.
Two separate stories take place simultaneously in 3 distinct narrations. Coralie is “The Mermaid Girl” in an oddity museum-slash-freakshow called The Museum of Extraordinary Things. She is also the daughter of the manager and proprietor, the mysterious Professor Sardie. Eddie is a former garment worker and hooligan now working as a free-lance photographer. He immigrated from Russia with his father as a young boy and the two no longer speak. He also struggles with his Jewish faith. Coralie and Eddie’s innermost thoughts are presented brilliantly by Grace Gummer and Zach Appelman and Judith Light (of Who’s The Boss fame) provides the voice of the narrator that delves in to the backgrounds of these two very interesting characters. The three voices together are like butter and makes the story all the more delicious!
Professor Sardie is a scientist/entertainer who immigrated to New York City from France under questionable circumstances. His Museum of Extraordinary Things is a combination of science centre and freak show highlighting such marvels as The Butterfly Girl, The Wolf Man, The Siamese Monkey Twins and the 100 Year Old Tortoise. Coralie’s life is completely and totally dictated by her father. Born with a deformity (webbed hands) she has been brought up to stay close to home, always wear gloves and to be comfortable in water. From a young age she spends hours a day in a bath of ice water practicing to hold her breath and learns to swim like a fish in the frigid Hudson River. She is monitored by her housekeeper/friend Maureen and is not even allowed to see what is inside the museum until she is 10 years old. It is then when she is told that she will become a main attraction at the museum — The Mermaid Girl. For years Coralie is happy to play her role and begins to think of the odd employees of the museum as family. Eventually the museum falls on hard times which brings out the worst in her father. She begins to see him as a jailer rather than a loving parent as he cruelly fires her friends when they become too close, forces her to play a more uncomfortable role as The Mermaid Girl (private midnight showings for the wealthy perverts of the city) and hatches a diabolical scheme to regain the museum’s former glory. She starts to defy her father in small ways as she makes a plan to leave him forever. All she needs is the right time and a place to go.
Ezekiel “Eddie” Cohan is a motherless Orthodox Jew living with his father in the garment district of New York City. He becomes a labourer at a very young age and obediently goes to work with his father, day in and day out. Eddie prides himself on being able to read people and thinks of his father as weak because of his lingering feelings for his dead wife (Eddie’s mother) who they buried back in Russia. One day he observes his father unsuccessfully attempt suicide by diving into the Hudson River. This causes a snap in Eddie’s loyalties and he turns to a life of crime — first, stealing the gold watch off the factory owner’s son then going to work for one of the city’s biggest charlatans, a “wizard” called Hochman. Eddie is one of a brigade of young boys who act as private investigators for Hochman who charges exuberant amounts of money to grieving mothers looking for missing children and angry wives looking for missing husbands. His Orthodox Jewish appearance helps him to blend in well as he extracts information in order to recover many missing persons. He makes a lot of money doing this but loses his taste for it when he recovers a missing boy that he finds frozen to the sidewalk, dead. Eddie cuts his hair and his ties to his father to forge an honest living on his own. He ends up working as a photography assistant for Moses Leavy (a wedding photographer with a gift for creating light) who becomes both mentor and replacement father. He photographs the tragedy of the Triangle Waistcoat Fire as it unfolds and morbidly takes death portraits of all of the victims.
Coralie and Eddie’s lives intersect at a crucial moment in time — Eddie has been called upon by a friend of his father’s to help solve the mystery of his daughter’s disappearance following the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire and Coralie knows exactly where the girl has ended up. When they meet there is an instant connection; there is electricity in the air as they realize that they were meant to be together. The problem is things are not as they seem in any sense and the two must fight to be together as mysteries unfold and the city burns for the second time.
I realize that some people find Alice Hoffman stories to be a bit on the cheesy side with the explosive love at first site and bits of magic but I find the majority of them to be delightful. The Museum of Extraordinary Things was no exception — who wouldn’t love a story with such a cast of colourful characters. Not only were there Mermaid Girls and Wolfmen but also alligator and lion tamers, a hermit with a wolf as a pet, a Lilliputian town full of “little people”, a sea monster and (my favourite) Mitts the Pit Bull. 4 stars from me!