Wednesday, May 28, 2014
I've only ever read one Alice Hoffman book, Practical Magic, and remembering not loving it, especially since the movie was so fun. I guess it was a little too wordy and literary for my college brain and I dismissed Hoffman as one of those literary writers whose plots disappear in wordiness. But the description of The Museum of Extraordinary Things was intriguing. I've never been super interested in US history, probably because my parents were obsessed with the Civil War while I prefer castles and anything pertaining to Hellenic or medieval history. But a few years ago, I taught electives on The Gangs of New York and Ragtime and became interested in the history of New York City around the turn of the century. There are so many fascinating characters from Harry Houdini to PT Barnum who existed during that time (many historical figures are woven into Ragtime's narrative, which is a fantastic novel that I can't recommend enough).
Anyway, The Museum of Extraordinary Things takes place in 1911 in Coney Island. The titular museum is owned by Professor Sardi, who displays "living wonders", including his daughter, Coralie, a gifted swimmer who happens to have webbed fingers and can therefore pose as a mermaid. However, one summer, when she is a teenager, interest in her exhibit has waned and her father forces her to swim at night in the water around Manhattan, disguised as a mysterious monster so people will spread stories. One of those evenings, she is carried off course by the current, and ends up meeting a young, handsome photographer, Ezekiel Cohen, a former Orthodox Jew who abandoned his tailor father to follow his own destiny.
The book takes place in the same year as the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, which forms the background of the novel's mystery. Ezekiel, who now goes by Eddie, is a photographer who ends up at the factory, photographing girls as they were rescued or leapt to their death to escape from the flames. Later, many families came to him to look at the pictures while they tried to identify their dead. One of the fathers who approaches Eddie is from his old neighborhood. He is sure his daughter did not die in the fire and asks Eddie to track her down.
In the meantime, Coralie is being cruelly treated by her father, who forces her to perform lewd sexual acts in the tank where she performs as a mermaid during the day, in front of strange men. She is deeply unhappy and tries to investigate into her father's mysterious past. She is also continually forced to swim in the Hudson to pretend to be a monster to attract attention to his fading business.
Eddie and Coralie eventually come face to face (which takes way too long) and immediately fall in love. Her father is an obstacle to their relationship, as is Eddie's obsession with the wealthy factory owners who he worked for as a child. All of these forces come together by the end of the book, tying together the missing girl, Coralie's father and the wealthy factory owners. The culminating moments of the book were drawn from actual history, when the amazing amusement park called Dreamland in Coney Island caught fire and burned to the ground. This was probably one of the more exciting scenes in the book, made even more fascinating because the traumatic scene is part of New York's history.
The writing itself was a bit odd. In each chapter, there was an italicized section that initially filled in both main character's backgrounds and childhood before launching into the main part of the story. This was interesting at first because the reader learned what made Eddie and Coralie who they were. But as the actual story moved forward, those italicized sections dragged a bit. Also, the mystery of the missing girl was solved pretty quickly and wasn't as exciting as I thought they would be.
I think this book had an interesting premise and I really enjoyed reading about New York in this time period, but a lot of the momentum of the novel got lost in literary flourishes. Still, I think it was a good read, if you're not expecting a super gripping and exciting plot that is a bit slow at times.
NY Times Review
Buy it at amazon and Barnes and Noble