In one of the most dramatic scenes in a novel, submerge a dog in a tank full of water and have him share a breathing tube with his master. Is it just me, or is that hard to believe? Alice Hoffman’s new novel, The Museum of Extraordinary Things, has an engaging premise – and conveys the feel of its time and place beautifully – but it also left me aggravated about a number of very ordinary things.
Set in New York City, primarily in the year 1911, The Museum of Extraordinary Things tells the story of Coralie and her father, the evil “Professor Sardie.” The self-proclaimed Professor – former magician and charlatan – owns a museum of wonders and curiosities on Coney Island. Coralie herself performs as one of the curiosities, but her life at the museum grows increasingly desperate as the museum’s finances deteriorate. Eddie Cohen’s life is moving in the opposite direction. Having fled massacres of Jews in the Ukraine, Eddie (then known as Ezekiel) and his father first work in terrible conditions in New York’s garment district. Eddie leaves his father, his faith, and his community behind and apprentices himself to a master photographer. Photography suffuses his life with light, but he lives with an interior darkness. When Eddie and Coralie’s lives intersect – as he attempts to solve the mystery of a girl’s disappearance that she knows something about – it comes as no surprise that their love allows them to fight their demons and create a better future together.
This novel convincingly evokes New York City in the early 20th century, particularly the lower East Side orthodox Jewish community and the amusements and inhabitants of Coney Island. When Eddie witnesses the famous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911, you feel the horror almost as strongly as if you yourself were there. This is the best gift that historical fiction can give to history: through the eyes of a believable fictional witness, you see, feel, and care about events long past. Another gift of historical fiction is to allow you – and invite you – to fully feel the strangeness of other times and places. Hoffman does this magnificently.
A few character issues bothered me. Would a young man as hardened as Eddie have fallen in love with Coralie so profoundly “at first sight”? I never quite knew when Coralie would be brave and when she would cower. I did know that Professor Sardie would be evil in every instance and that Coralie’s mother figure/housekeeper would be good in every instance.
My quibbles with the plot arose mostly in the last chapters. There’s the dog breathing from a tube in the water tank mentioned above. There’s also a dog/wolf (which is he? why won’t you commit to one or the other?) named North, who ends up on the roof of a house in a climactic scene. His doggish actions on the roof are a major part of what happens to the villain, but I do not know how or when he got there. Is this a big deal? In the grand scheme of things, no.
Another smallish annoyance is Hoffman’s habit of repeating descriptions and explanations, suggesting that we need to be told more than once. Over and over, for instance, we hear that one of Eddie’s early employers, a shady and powerful local figure known as “the Wizard” is “fashionably dressed,” “dapper as ever,” “wearing fashionable clothes.” We are told twice that a particular elephant can only sleep when her trainer is in her stall; we are also told twice what the inhabitants of the Museum do during the off-season. I could go on with these examples but that would be tiresome. I found one of the stylistic choices particularly exhausting. Entire chapters are italicized, apparently to make it clear that one of the narrators is speaking in the first person. This gets hard on the eyes. Perhaps this is an issue to be taken up with her editor. While I’m venting, though – I might note that Hoffman lays it on pretty thick about how humans ruined the gorgeous wilderness of New York by – well, living in it.
Why pick up this book? Read it if you like a love story where the heroine does finally find her courage and her man. Read it if you want to breathe the air of early-twentieth century New York. Read it if you want to see the bad guys lose, and suffer. I love all of these things – and Alice Hoffman is a pro! She has written 23 novels, 3 books of short fiction, and 8 books for children and young adults. Her recent terrific interview in The New York Times Book Review made me run out and buy this book. The Museum of Extraordinary Things paints in bright, vibrant colors. I can see it vividly on the big screen. I wish I hadn’t been so aggravated by some of the smaller details and (though I really hate to say it) lack of nuance.