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Monday, 3 March 2014

The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman.

Book Review Rating ♥♥♥½

Published by Simon and Schuster

The story has two strands which will inevitably become entwined. One strand involves Coralie Sardie whose father owns the Museum of Extraordinary Things on Coney Island, New York. The museum is a mix of people who are deemed as freaks; a man completely covered in hair, a girl by the name of Malia whose arms resembled a butterfly’s wings and jars of formaldehyde containing unborn babies with deformities. Coralie thinks of herself as a freak as she has the abnormality of webbed fingers. Her father also sees his daughter as a freak and on her twelfth birthday he shows her a large tank filled with water in which he wants her to be on display as a mermaid.
The second strand is about a young man Ezekiel Cohen a young man who with his father escaped the Russian pogroms in the Ukraine. Both live in abject poverty with Ezekiel’s father working in factories while Ezekiel sits under his work table. After an attempted suicide by Ezekiel’s father, Ezekiel loses all respect for his father and leaves, finding work with Abraham Hochman who is called the seer of Rivington Street. Hochman claims to be a mind-reader and interpreter of dreams and through his supposed talent he solves crimes and finds lost children. Ezekiel changes his name to Eddie and eventually finds a talent for photography.
“After the day when my father leapt from the dock, as if his life was so worthless he was willing to cast it away, I made a vow to look for pleasure in my own life...nothing made me happy until I’d stood in the locust grove and watched Levy with his camera.”
After swimming further down the Hudson River than she intended, Coralie espy’s Eddie sitting fixing a meal over a bonfire on the river’s edge. She immediately feels a ‘magnetic pull’ toward Eddie and later in the story Eddie falls in love with her on first sight.
This fin de siècle novel is a tremendous tale of a New York on the cusp of becoming a modern city. The consolidation of the five boroughs to form what would become the modern day New York, the opening of the subway, the construction of magnificent buildings sat incongruously with the streets being covered with 2500 tons of manure daily from over 200,000 horses that were still being used as transportation. Central Park once a boggy area and populated by squatters now remade into an opulent playground for the rich.
Mixing factual events with fiction to bring the city to life, Alice Hoffman has created a remarkable account that not only informs but entertainments but never becomes boringly didactic. The author shows the city at its worse and its best. Its worst is the true event of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory where girls as young as twelve worked as seamstresses. The nine storey building catches fire with doors chained and the fire escape melting. Reminiscent of 9/11, with people jumping to their deaths from the ninth floor window ledges most of them engulfed in flames.
Eddie Cohen’s time as a photographer includes time photographing criminals being arrested and the dead bodies of gangsters for tabloid newspapers. With his bribery of local police officers and his photographing of dead criminals it is very reminiscent of the 1940s freelance photographer, Arthur ‘weegee’ Fellig.
Coralie’s story is tragic and pathetic in equal amounts. Coralie struggles to extricate herself from her  life as a freak show attraction but cannot find the strength to disobey her overbearing and cruel father who is not above stitching human and animal parts together to ‘create’ a new exhibit for his museum.
The story of Eddie and Coralie is fascinating and told with great aplomb but the Romantic story arc is ridden with clichés with dialogue lumpen and bordering on the Barbara Cartland and Mills and Boon.
“Coralie kissed him quickly, then whispered that she had given him her heart. It was not possible to live with one’s heart, yet she was smiling when she backed away.”
“The housekeeper lifted Coralie’s chin so they might look into one another’s eyes. ‘If we had no hurt and no sin to speak of, we’d be angels, and angels can’t love the way men and women do.’”
One feels that the novel has been written by two different people and I wish that the person who wrote the main story of New York, Eddie and Coralie stories (before they met) had written the whole novel as the Romantic element of the novel is at once bathetic, incongruous and detracts from what could have been a great novel.

First Line - "You would think it would be 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 marvelous."

Memorable Line - "I saw owls in the locust trees and wondered if these creatures were the spirits of the dead, for they were so many murdered in our homeland there was not room enough for all of the ghosts. I half believed they had turned into birds instead."

No' of Pages - 385

Sex Scenes - None

Profanity - None

Advanced copy supplied by Netgalley.

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