Published by Scribner
Publication date: February 18, 2014
Genres: Historical, Magical Realism
The Museum of Extraordinary Things is both the name of Alice Hoffman’s new historical novel and the name of the museum Coralie’s father owns. She lives alone with him in the house next to the museum on Coney Island. Her mother died when she was an infant and her father is highly protective so the only company she has is their housekeeper, Maureen. He is also adamant she not go into the museum as he feels the “wonders” within would be too intense for a young child. He promises her she can see all the marvels when she turns ten. In the meantime, he spends a great deal of time with her teaching her to swim and as she grows older, how to increase her stamina in the water and hold her breath underwater. By the end of the first chapter Coralie is finally allowed to walk into the museum and see all the strange and unusual things, including a tank of water, labelled The Human Mermaid. It is for her and explains why she has spent hours swimming in the coldest of water and submerged in tubs so she can hold her breath for an unusually long time. This was not the love and bonding of a father, this was the training of a manager for his talent. It broke my heart and set the tone for the rest of the book.
Ezekiel is a Ukrainian Jew who escaped as a young boy with his father. His mother was killed in their village, leaving Ezekiel with his father as they try to navigate the slum world of Manhattan in the early 1900s. When his father loses yet another job as a tailor due to unions, Ezekiel decides that his father’s piety and lack of will to stand up to oppressors is more than he can bear. He cuts off all his hair and changes his name to Eddie. He finds a love of photography through a photographer named Moses Levy who leaves him his studio when he dies. He was a portrait and wedding photographer but Eddie finds this to be a false livelihood and chooses instead to photograph the news of the time, including the horrors of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.
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.
His photographs of the fire and a natural ability to find missing people leads him into a mystery that brings Coralie into his life—but only as a vague apparition until time and events bring them face to face.
Hoffman does a marvelous job capturing the spirit of the times, the greed and corruption of businessmen who locked their employees into their factories, ensuring high productivity but certain death if anything went wrong to the success of men like Barnum and Ripley who found that there was plenty of money to be made by taking people whose deformities made them seem freakish and displaying them to a gawping public who wanted to believe they were ‘wonders’ from another world. It was a time when freedom was held by the few and the many were obedient, willing to make the fortunes of the few without thought to their own dreams. This makes Museum a sad book—steeped in sadness and resonating with sadness. Coralie is essentially a slave to her father, whose demands on her money-making potential grow ever greater and more depraved as she gets older. Eddie refuses to live the life he has been assigned but is so removed from his heritage and arrogant in his beliefs that he is isolated in every way, his only companion being a pit bull.
In the same way, it feels as if Hoffman can’t shake off the imbalance in this world. Her last work, The Dovekeepers, was a tragedy of epic proportions and one of my favorite novels of 2012 but Museum didn’t impact me the same way. She writes of the injustice and naïve joy to be found in New York City at the turn of the 20th century but the connections are tenuous. By the time Coralie and Eddie do come together, literally rising from the ashes of their past, my passion for them has cooled and I’m not certain what is left and how to feel about it.