Monday, April 14, 2014

Book Report Monday: The Museum of Extraordinary Things

Title: The Museum of Extraordinary Things

Author: Alice Hoffman

Genre: Fiction-Historical

Synopsis: Mesmerizing and illuminating, Alice Hoffman's The Museum of Extraordinary Things is the story of an electric and impassioned love between two vastly different souls in New York during the volatile first decades of the twentieth century. Coralie Sardie is the daughter of the sinister impresario behind The Museum of Extraordinary Things, a Coney Island boardwalk freak show that thrills the masses. An exceptional swimmer, Coralie appears as the Mermaid in her father's museum, alongside performers like the Wolfman, the Butterfly Girl, and a one-hundred-year-old turtle.

One night Coralie stumbles upon a striking young man taking pictures of moonlit trees in the woods off the Hudson River. The dashing photographer is Eddie Cohen, a Russian immigrant who has run away from his father's Lower East Side Orthodox community and his job as a tailor's apprentice. When Eddie photographs the devastation on the streets of New York following the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, he becomes embroiled in the suspicious mystery behind a young woman's disappearance and ignites the heart of Coralie.

With its colorful crowds of bootleggers, heiresses, thugs, and idealists, New York itself becomes a riveting character as Hoffman weaves her trademark magic, romance, and masterful storytelling to unite Coralie and Eddie in a sizzling, tender, and moving story of young love in tumultuous times. (from Goodreads)

My Review: Hoffman is as reliable as always for me. I didn't know anything about the Triangle Factory Fire or about New York City in the early 1900's. The fact that most people haven't heard about the factory fire that killed 146 garment workers who could not escape the flames because the managers had locked them in was a driving force behind Hoffman's desire to tell this story. The fire served as a catalyst for unionization and garment worker's rights. In the novel lost soul and  photographer, Eddie, arrives at the scene of the conflagration in time to document most of the tragedy. Many of the victims, mostly young Jewish women, held hands and jumped from the windows to hasten their deaths.

Eddie is approached by the grieving father of one of the girls working at the factory who hasn't been seen since the fire but was not found among the dead. Investigating the missing girl leads him to Coralie, who lives in her father's museum of oddities which includes her. Coralie has a strangely sheltered life. She's seen and experienced the bizarre and unimaginable but she has seen little of life outside. The performers give the reader the same feeling as sideshow freaks from a circus or carnival. Yet we see them, not only costumed and in character but when they are engaged in everyday rituals. Many have deformities so severe they have no other option than to become an exhibit in the Museum of Extraordinary Things. For her own part, Coralie never considered that she had a choice. The two stories are set in a distinct juxtaposition but are intertwined by both the fate of the missing girl and the connection between Eddie and Coralie. In true Hoffman style, the young lovers are drawn intensely and irrevocably toward each other despite the cards stacked against them.

I loved the setting. One hundred years ago Manhattan was only partly developed, the rest of it was untouched wilderness. It was fascinating to picture swamps inhabited by no one but a crazy hermit and wolves where now there are endless streets filled with office buildings of dizzying heights.

My Recommendation: A must read for Hoffman fans. Also, anyone who enjoyed Night Circus should pick it up.

For Next Time: Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys


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