Worth A Read: The Museum of Extraordinary Things, by Alice Hoffman


The BUZZ: The 29th novel from the bestselling author of The Dovekeepers, and Practical Magic

The GIST: Coralie Sardie is a motherless daughter working as the Human Mermaid in The Museum of Extraordinary Things, the Coney Island freak show run by her sinister father. She is a gentle soul, unable to free herself from his oppression. The museum is a creepy place filled with embalmed oddities and live oddballs, including a Wolfman, the Butterfly Girl, and conjoined twins. They perform alongside Coralie as she floats in a large tank, her webbed fingers dyed blue. She suffers the pain of knowing that she is a fake, coupled with a deep desire to show her real self to the world. Coralie doesn’t believe in love until she meets Eddie Cohen, a Russian immigrant who has run away from his own oppressive father’s strict orthodox existence as a tailor to pursue his love of photography. Eddie photographs crime scenes for the papers, developing a harsh view of humanity that only Coralie can alter. In the grit and grime of New York City at the turn of the twentieth century, they rescue one another from the injustices they have endured.   

The WRITING: Absorbing. Hoffman’s imagination is deep and sometimes dark. Her unique take on magic realism creates a colorful story filled with strange (but very human) characters and a gripping plot. There are several mysteries going on, including the disappearance of a young factory worker after a sweatshop fire, a monster swimming in the Hudson River, and the secrets about Coralie’s mother. Hoffman is skilled with the plot twist and clever in the connections she forms. Historical period details add a rich backdrop for Coralie’s journey to discover and claim her freedom, as Eddie has done. Hoffman draws parallels between the individual strains of oppression in Eddie’s and Coralie’s lives,  and the larger societal flaws that create and maintain poverty. The results are the same: exploitation dehumanizes others, generating disorder and suffering. Hoffman is hopeful and prescriptive in her review of resilience. The freaks among us are the most compassionate, and those who have suffered the most are the strongest.

BUY or BORROW? Borrow. I’m a big Hoffman fan, but haven’t reread any of her books. This one is an intriguing look at freaks and fortune, and the saving power of love.

“Eddie had come to understand that what a man saw and what actually existed in the natural world often were contradictory. The human eye was not capable of true sight, for it was constrained by its own humanness, clouded by regret, and opinion, and faith. Whatever was witnessed in the real world was unknowable in real time. It was the eye of the camera that captured the world as it truly was.”

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