A while back, Gail, who is a regular contributor to the Online Book Club, recommended the novels of Alice Hoffman as literature worth exploring.
This suggestion registered and that’s probably why, when I noticed The Museum of Extraordinary Things, its cover aglow with a surreal feminine creature, on the shelves at Chapters, I decided to pick it up.
Because this is my first Alice Hoffman novel, I don’t know how hoffmanesque it is. This is significant because I think that a reader’s first encounter with a writer’s work is a little like a long first date in a quiet place: it’s inescapably make or break.
For instance, had my first John Irving novel been The 158-Pound Marriage rather than The World Acording to Garp, I might have never picked up and come to cherish such masterpieces as A Prayer For Owen Meany.
I’m happy with this first encounter with Alice Hoffman’s work, though I don’t suppose that we’re a perfect match.
This is a novel pinned, like an otherworldly skin, between dichotomies.
It is at once historical and fantastical. Set in New York City, in 1911, it moves between the harsh and ugly reality of the living and working conditions of the City’s principally Jewish garment workers, and the phantasmagoria of The Museum of Extraordinary Things, situated on Coney Island, which is the creation of the mythomaniacal Professor Sardie.
It is the story of a lonely photographer, Eddie Cohen, who seeks meaning and truth through the lens of his camera, and of Coralie, the Human Mermaid in her father’s―Professor Sardie’s―freak show, whose eyes seem able to perceive only beauty in spite of the cruel fates reserved to so many of the acts gaped at daily in the Museum.
It is a novel of fire and water, scarred by two tragic events in New York City’s history: The 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, and the Coney Island Dreamland fire of the same year, but the story also moves along the Hudson River, where Coralie swims as part of the daily training that allows her to spend hours in a tank of cold water in her father’s museum, and its banks, where Eddie goes to escape the ugliness and despair of his hardscrabble and almost destitute life.
Shifting its perspective between the voices of Coralie, Eddie, and the omniscient narrator, Hoffman’s novel sometimes feels too earnest, and slightly overwritten, and yet…and yet it is also lovely and spellbinding. It is certainly thematically rich, and I can easily imagine us engaged in spirited discussions about father-child relationships and the treatment of women in this novel, about the labour politics of that period, and about the author’s choices in dwelling on certain events more than others.
The Museum of Extraordinary Things is a novel of extreme cruelty and of redemptive kindness. It is the tragedy of the Triangle Factory fire that galvanizes Eddie and pulls him out of the grips of despair, and it is the selfless love of two people, the Wolf Man, a fur-covered though gentle intellectual forced to live his life on the bleak and unforgiving margins, and Maureen, a once beautiful woman, now scarred and working as the Professor’s housekeeper and protector of Coralie, that draws the story’s ugliness back toward the light.
“The world is more varied and wondrous than most men understand.
[…] No one is what he seems.”
Alice Hoffman, The Museum of Extraordinary Things