The Museum of Extraordinary Things
By Alice Hoffman
384 pages, $32,00.
Alice Hoffman wrote several best-selling novels including The Dovekeepers and The Red Garden. The Museum of Extraordinary Things is her most recent book. It’s an enchanting story with a pace as steady and stirring as the Hudson River snaking its way into the plot. I was swept full-force into the story. Hoffman’s choice of narrators, her weaving of past and present narratives, and her colourful language drew me in. So did her captivating setting —New York City in the early 1900s.
Here are the top ten highlights of this novel:
10. The ill-tempered proprietor of the Museum of Extraordinary Things has a daughter named Coralie. Along with the Wolfman, the Butterfly Girl, and the Alligator Man, she graces the halls of the museum as one of his wonders. Coralie spends hours under water, in a large tank lined with exotic seashells, costumed as the Human Mermaid. When she isn’t working for her father, the dark-haired girl with the webbed fingers spends her time reading or helping their much-loved housekeeper. Coralie will steal your heart in Chapter One.
9. Our hero Eddie Cohen escapes the horrors of his home country by sailing to New York City with his grieving father. He turns to the streets to survive, for a “motherless boy is hardened in many ways yet will often search for a place to deposit his loyalty and devotion. Eddie had found this in the city he saw as a great and tormented beauty, one ready to embrace him when all others turned away.” He will grow on you little by little until you want to cheer him on from the shadows of the city’s brownstones.
8. The Hudson River, once speckled with lush woodlands and small villages, courses through the veins of Coralie and Eddie. She swims in it with welcome abandon, he photographs it with unparalleled devotion. They both find strength, beauty, and solace within its whirling darkness. You too may feel its powerful tug.
7. The cellar of Professor Sardie —Coralie’s oppressive, sinister father— conjures horrific images. He manipulates Nature’s wonders for vile, profiteering purposes in his dank workshop. Formaldehyde-filled jars line the walls. If you look into them, you’ll see curiosities that will forever trouble your sleep.
6. Tucked behind the Museum of Extraordinary Things, the living wonders meet for “wondrous breakfast gatherings.” The sharp scent of the pear tree and the sweet laughter of the fellowship fill the air. They bask in an intimate comradery you will want to partake in.
5. Coralie loves to watch one of the professor’s prized possessions: a cereus plant. She sneaks out of her room at night, daring this night-blooming cactus to ripen and show its rare, white flower —if only for a moment. You will hold your breath, wishing the plant will bloom for Coralie.
4. The Wolfman —a man covered with dark, coarse hair— is a well-mannered devotee of English Literature. Jane Eyre is his favorite novel since he relates to the infamous madwoman locked in the attic. You will find this comparison quite fitting, and may notice other allusions to the classic tale of Miss Eyre.
3. Hoffman brings turn-of-the-twentieth-century New York City events to life. Alongside the characters, you will experience the devastating Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire and the sprawling development of the greatest amusement park.
2. Professor Sardie’s red-haired housekeeper, Maureen, raised little Coralie. Over the years, she has imparted important life lessons to her beloved charge: “Love happens in such a way, Maureen told [Coralie]. It walks up to you, and when it does, you need to recognize it for what it is and, perhaps more important, for what it might become.” You will be thankful Coralie has such a loving caretaker.
1. When the pivotal point in the story arises, housebound Coralie must walk out of her father’s shadow and be brave: “All at once, she was at the center of her life, not hiding behind a curtain or eavesdropping with her ear pressed against a floorboard or a door.” There will be no stopping Coralie and Eddie from taking their fated path. There will be no stopping you from reading what comes next.