Alice Hoffman's 'The Museum of Extraordinary Things' Explores History By Way of a Stunning Love Affair
In the Acknowledgements of The Museum of Extraordinary Things (Scribner), author Alice Hoffman makes mention of her desire to use her fiction writing to chronicle the kind of “years when everything seems to change all at once.” In her latest novel, Hoffman does just that, setting the book in 1911 in the booming yet still young metropolis of New York City, during a time marked by great ambition that could only be bested by great loss. Hoffman uses a pair of historical tragedies to frame a fictionalized love story with some big rewards.
Extraordinary Things takes place primarily in between the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, which claimed the lives of 146 garment workers, and the Dreamland Amusement Park Fire, which occurred two months later and leveled a popular Coney Island attraction. Setting her characters as both essential voices and complete outsiders to the tragedies, they are observers with their own vested interests in what follows after such terrible disasters.
Coralie Sardie is set as our link to Dreamland, an amusement park that was populated by a number of freak shows alongside its more traditional rides, as young Coralie is both the daughter of a rival freak show operator (the titular museum) and an actual attraction within it. Although the inhabitants of shows and menageries like Professor Sardie’s are not always in possession of the traits that set them apart — not every Wolfman is prone to canine tendencies, just like not every Bearded Woman actually grows her own facial hair — Coralie does have a certain trait that makes her work as the Human Mermaid feel somewhat appropriate. A hardened swimmer, trained to withstand the cold, fed a diet of fish, and uncannily built to hold her breath underwater also has webbed fingers, the kind that make her swimming that much easier and her attempts to hide amongst others that much harder.
Her father isn’t simply interested in exploiting her swimming ability and genetic quirks, he’s also interested in forcing Coralie to use her body for other financial gains, and although Coralie may be strong of mind and body, the demands have broken her emotionally.
Love, it seems, might help heal them.
Enter Eddie Cohen (formerly known as Ezekiel, though he’s kicked his name in an attempt to also kick his Russian and Jewish background), whom Coralie encounters on the edge of the Hudson River one evening while she searches for a supposed sea monster her father is intent on capturing for his show. If Coralie is Dreamland, Eddie is Shirtwaist, as the junior photographer has just recently been tasked with uncovering the mystery of a missing Shirtwaist girl, as he was present the day of the fire, snapping his own pictures of the tragedy. Their attraction is instant and undeniable.
Hoffman is skilled in the mystery and mysticism of love (this is the woman responsible for Practical Magic, after all), and although Coralie and Eddie’s romance is rooted in the real world (a big, unwieldy place that is seemingly filled to the brim with tragedy and pain), the strength of their affection does take on a cast of something very like magic — it’s that powerful and overwhelming.
As the city recovers from the Shirtwaist tragedy (and unknowingly hurdles towards the Dreamland fire), Coralie's and Eddie’s love grows, with Hoffman vividly imagining both their romance and its many consequences. The author’s ability to transform everyday language into something fulfilling and rich is on full display, and both her central relationship and the city it takes place come alive on nearly every page. Despite a slack middle section and an occasional reliance on characters far less compelling than Coralie and Eddie (including Coralie’s absent and possible mother), the book picks up tremendous speed in its final third, ending on a thrilling and deeply romantic note.