The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman
Opening sentence: “You would think it impossible to find anything new in the world, creatures no man has ever seen before, one-of-a-kind oddities in which nature has taken a backseat to the coursing pulse of the fantastical and the marvellous.”
Set in 1911 and told by two narrators, Coralie Sardie and Eddie Cohen, this tale is billed as a romance, but the lovers don’t actually meet until over halfway through the book. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as each has an enticing story of their own to tell and enough time to become characters we care about individually before meeting.
Coralie’s father runs The Museum of Extraordinary Things on Coney Island, New York, which features, “the living wonders he employed, all of whom performed unusual acts or were born with curious attributes that made others willing to pay to see them.” In short, he exploits these people and when she turns 12, he adds his daughter to his exhibition, dressing her up as a mermaid and keeping her a tank. So you understand the kind of man Professor Sardie is and the kind of world Coralie lives in.
Orthodox Jew, Elijah Cohen, abandons his faith, changes his name to Eddie and lives a very simple life as a photographer, capturing life around him, including the real and infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. Not only does this prove a pivotal point in the plot, but also highlights how Hoffman seamlessly includes real historical events into her story. I enjoyed this element as it gave the novel another dimension and really helped to transport you into the era.
Neither Coralie or Eddie has had an easy life, both are damaged and fragile, so when they finally meet, there is a wonderfully complete feeling, as you know they can really help each other. This is a romance, but one with a gritty edge and that was a plus point for me. I am really not a fan of the soppy, predictable alternative.
However, on finishing this book, I found myself puzzled. In theory, it was exactly the sort of story I like to read and all the elements seemed to be there. I just didn’t finish and think, “I need to tell someone about this” and I can’t quite work out why. It’s definitely one to try and I’d be intrigued to see if anyone else finishes it and just feels a little empty, but couldn’t pin-point why? Or if you can – please share your thoughts!