The Museum of Extraordinary Things

Alice Hoffman

Alice Hoffman

Alice Hoffman is a prolific and engaging storyteller known for the occasional touch of magical realism and an ability to transport her reader into the worlds she creates.

She wrote one of my favourite books Blackbird House, referred to by some as a collection of short stories, the connecting thread running through each story being an old Massachusetts house, the narrative tracing the lives of its various occupants over a span of 200 years. The house bears witness to change through each family’s loved ones and the lives they live inside Blackbird House.

Since that haunting book I have kept an eye out for her work and when I read the premise of this new novel, The Museum of Extraordinary Things, I was more than intrigued. It is set in 1917 New York, when things of a freakish nature fascinated and amusement parks were becoming bigger and bolder in their scope, trying to outdo each other with what they offered the public.

Museum of Extraordinary Things

Professor Sardie is an eccentric French scientist and magician, who came to America seeking his fortune and when we meet him, he has opened a museum of extraordinary living oddities in a room connected to his home on Coney Island, New York. He lives there with his daughter Coralie and Maureen, the woman he has hired to take care of his daughter, herself an extraordinary being, a loving and devoted carer and the victim of disfiguring burns over her face and body.

In addition to the museum, he is constantly thinking up new exhibits and working on bizarre projects in the basement cellar, a den that no one but he has access to.

The story has a dual narrative, firstly from the point of view of his daughter Coralie who becomes part of her father’s exhibit alongside performers including the Wolfman, the Butterfly Girl, and a one-hundred-year-old turtle. She has been trained since a small girl to withstand extreme cold and secretly swims along the Hudson River to build up her strength.

The second narrative is from the perspective of a young Russian-Ukrainian immigrant, Eddie Cohen, who has drifted away from his father and the Lower East Side Orthodox community where they lived, having fled persecution in their homeland. Leaving his job as a tailor’s apprentice, he first works for a psychic investigator finding missing people and then attaches himself to a photographer leading eventually to work for a newspaper. He too has a fascination with the Hudson River and it is here that Coralie will catch her first glimpse of the young man, she will become fascinated by.

“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 one great and tormented beauty, one ready to embrace him when all others turned away.”

Dreamland Circus, Coney Island, New York  1917

Dreamland Circus, Coney Island, New York 1917

Hoffman writes the story of the lives of these two characters and others, eventually bringing them together, while sharing two significant tragic events in New York’s history in 1911. During one of these events a young woman goes missing and it is this mystery that will ultimately bring the young couple together.

The city and the river are themselves like characters, struggling to live in harmony, with the knowledge that one will eventually encroach on the other and destroy its peaceful surrounding. For now the river is like a refuge and the city a menace that threatens to overthrow its flanks, bringing dark elements to its shores.

Wolf Hudson

The Museum of Extraordinary Things brings New York City and the conditions of 1911 alive. The river, the streets and the changing landscape between them are sketched using all the senses as we step into the lives of characters living on the edge of society trying to survive. We observe those for whom it comes naturally to exploit the weak while witnessing the compassionate few who will risk everything including life itself to do the opposite.

It is a riveting read, transporting us to an era when fantasy and the imagination were sought as a literal means of escape and we look behind the scenes of an extraordinary, freakish world. Spellbinding!

Note: This book was an Advance Reader Copy(ARC) provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

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20 thoughts on “The Museum of Extraordinary Things

  1. My list of books to read just got longer thanks, again, to you. (not a complaint!) Looking forward to it, I love Alice Hoffman. But first I have to get through “The Luminaries” and “The Signature of all Thins”. At least, I think I do.

    • I usually save the chunksters for a holiday read, you’ll get through this one in a weekend and The Signature of all Things is a great read.

      Ah, I know the feeling, the ever growing list. I’ve just realised I have Hoffman’s <the probable future on my shelf, tempted to ignore the TBR and indulge that while I’m on her wavelength. :)

    • I think to talk about the cover is a little bit of a spoiler actually, I didn’t understand it and now that I have read the book I am glad I didn’t, otherwise it wouldn’t have been the reveal that it is when we learn what it is. Sorry, that’s one of my rules, no spoilers! :)

    • Oh yes, save all it’s treasures for when you open the first page, that’s the hardest part of writing a review when a book is as abundant with references as this one is, as you may have seen I wouldn’t even discuss the cover as that too is a discovery for the reader. Enjoy!

  2. This sounds good. I used to love Hoffman’s books but eventually got a bit tired reading her magical realism too often. This sounds very good, though. Thanks for the great review.

    • I didn’t realise she wrote so many and from what I have read Blackbird House is a little bit of a departure. I read Local Girls and wasn’t wowed at all by it, so have been more hesitant since, but this one I just wanted to jump right right in without waiting for popular opinion. The only magic in this one if that created through illusion and our own imagination. It’s not necessary for the author to use it when her characters are full of it. I hope you enjoy it Judith.

  3. Beautiful review, Claire! I want to find out what is there in Professor Sardie’s basement cellar. I am sure there are some eerie surprises there :) For some reason when I read your review, I thought of ETA Hoffmann’s ‘The Sandman’, in which also there is a man who has a very interesting daughter. Have you read that story?

    • Thank you Vishy, the dark recess underground an interesting metaphor, fortunately Hoffman doesn’t write horror. :) I don’t know The Sandman but see it has been republished recently.

      Alice Hoffman creates a very visual environment, it would be interesting to see it on screen, especially while there is still an actual landscape, horse and carriage and a natural aspect to life there.

  4. The slightly ghoulish world is still an attraction today with this and that slightly Twin peaksy Carnival show that was out some years back and the X -Files of course! Both books you mention sound equally enticing, which would you recommend that I hunt down first?

  5. It does sound riveting . . . and, for what it’s worth, ‘museums’ as metaphor and living things seem to be taking hold of my consciousness. I’m about to read Orhan Pamuk’s ‘The Museum of Innocence.’ Then there’s Donna Tartt’s ‘The Goldfinch,’ which begins in a museum.

    • Wow, you have a couple of chunksters lined up there, Pamuk will make you experience his character’s obsession and test your endurance, so might be better to save the delights of The Goldfinch for last, I’m saving it for my summer chunkster read, and absolutely can’t wait.

      On that theme of living extraordinary beings, I have just received today Savage Girl by Jean Zimmerman set in 1875 Manhattan, another sideshow attraction, a girl raised by wolves introduced to Edith Wharton – era society. Might have to read House of Mirth as a companion novel, so many great books!

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