The Museum of Extraordinary Things: A Novel
- By Alice Hoffman
- 384 pp.
- Reviewed by Tara Campbell
- February 26, 2014
A love story set in the dark and magical circus-sideshow world of early 20th-century America.
As soon as I opened Alice Hoffman’s The Museum of Extraordinary Things, I faced a mystery. The thoughtful reviews of Hoffman’s work on the back cover sounded a bit at odds with the somewhat hyperbolic jacket copy inside the flap, leading me to wonder what kind of novel I was about to read. Would I be immersed in the “powerful, elegant” and “arresting” work praised by her reviewers? Or would this be the rollicking period yarn promised by the inside flap, featuring a “sizzling, tender, and moving story of young love in tumultuous times” between the daughter of the museum’s “sinister impresario” and a “dashing photographer” hero, amidst the “colorful crowds of heiresses, thugs, and idealists” of old New York?
Hoffman begins her tale with Coralie, whose early life reads like a dark fairy tale. Motherless, she grows up with her cold, controlling father, the mastermind behind the Museum of Extraordinary Things. The Museum is an attraction of the Coney Island of the early 1900s, where rare artifacts and “living wonders” such as sword-swallowers, hot-coal walkers, the Butterfly Girl and Wolfman are on display. Born with webbing between her fingers, Coralie is one of these wonders herself. Her father trains her from childhood to swim in the harsh conditions of the Hudson River, so that she may take her place among the “living wonders” as the Human Mermaid. But as she grows older, and the fortunes of the Museum begin to decline, Coralie becomes aware of the dark secrets behind her father’s house of wonders.
Meanwhile, Eddie is a Jewish immigrant from Ukraine who escaped the pogroms of Europe with his father. En route to America, Eddie sees his father try to drown himself and feels betrayed that his father would consider abandoning his own son. Eddie becomes further estranged by what he sees as his father’s cowardly acceptance of the terrible working conditions they both endure in the garment industry in New York. Rejecting his father and his faith, Eddie embarks on a life of crime by going to work for a powerful conman whose specialty is finding people in the sleazy underworld of the city. When a chance meeting with a respected photographer from Ukraine teaches him how to see the beauty in the world, he decides to turn his life around and become a photographer himself.
In the aftermath of the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911, Eddie is called upon to use his sleuthing skills to look for a missing girl whose old Jewish father doesn’t believe she was killed in the fire. His search reveals an ominous connection to the Museum of Extraordinary Things, where his path collides with Coralie. They fall in love; and while Eddie works to solve the mystery of the girl’s disappearance, Coralie confronts her father’s increasingly sinister measures to keep his museum afloat and her under his thumb.
Hoffman produces some beautiful moments in this novel. For example, we feel the pang of guilt and loss when Eddie asks a small boy to deliver a packet to his estranged father:
“‘You know the man who lives on the fifth floor? The tailor. The one that doesn’t like noise and doesn’t talk to anyone? He has a long, dark beard.’
The boy nodded, but he corrected Eddie. ‘His beard is gray.’
That piece of information made Eddie’s throat grow tight. He held out a dime. ‘For you,’ he said, to the boy’s great surprise.”
Unfortunately these moments are almost lost amid an overabundance of detail and florid prose, as in this rather lengthy sentence about how Coralie’s father viewed his museum:
“He always insisted that his establishment was not a freak show, like the well-known Huber’s Dime Museum on Fourteenth Street in Manhattan, which had been a purveyor of the strange and unique for many years until finis was posted on its door in 1910, or the dozens of dreadful little entertainments that lined lower Surf Avenue, exhibitions that debased and degraded their human skeletons and amputees, their conjoined twins and the men who allowed fleas to suck the blood from their bodies, along with the wrestling rings and vaudeville halls, the worst and most exploitive of them having moved northward, to an area known as the Gut.”
In her acknowledgments at the end of the book, Hoffman notes how important it was for her to do justice to the history of New York. It is clear that she has done extensive research, and she portrays the dark and dangerous side well. Her respect for the early labor movement is evident, and her harrowing description of the Triangle Fire is intense and moving. It is the strongest part of the novel.
Unfortunately, there are other moments when Hoffman takes the reader out of the story by either dropping in a history lesson that doesn’t move the narrative along or editorializing on the evils of the garment industry. Hoffman does a very effective job of showing us the poor conditions, but then proceeds to break her own spell by telling us that the garment industry is evil.
It’s fair to compare The Museum of Extraordinary Things to Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants. Both are love stories set in the dark and magical circus/sideshow world of early 20th-century America. Both feature European immigrant male leads who are forced by harsh circumstances to rebuild their lives, and who both wind up falling in love with trapped young women. I thoroughly enjoyed the language, pacing and characters of Gruen’s work. In Hoffman’s case, a little more judicious trimming would have cleared the way for her to more elegantly portray the magic and mystery of the world of wonders she so evidently loved.
Tara Campbell is a Washington, DC-based writer of crossover sci-fi. With a B.A. in English and an M.A. in German language and literature, she has a demonstrated aversion to money and power. Her work has appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books, Potomac Review Blog, Hogglepot Journal, Lorelei Signal, Punchnel’s, GlassFire Magazine, the WiFiles, Silverthought Online, Toasted Cake Podcast, Litro Magazine, and Luna Station Quarterly.