Hoffman's latest is vivid love story
Carnival sideshows, freak shows and the midway all offer chances to gawk at the differences that divide us while forgetting the humanity we all share.
Novelist Alice Hoffman employs her trademark alchemy of finding the magical amid the ordinary in her mesmerizing new novel “The Museum of Extraordinary Things.” This love story is set in early 20th-century New York, in a newly electrified Brooklyn of struggling immigrants and striving “1 percenters.”
Coralie is the obedient daughter of the cruel Professor Sardie, owner of the Museum of Extraordinary Things on Coney Island. Among his employees is a girl born without arms who is painted and affixed with wings to go on display as the Butterfly Girl. A sophisticated, Walt Whitman-quoting man who is covered with fur becomes the living wonder known as Wolfman.
Coralie, too, is extraordinary: her fingers are webbed, and she is a powerful swimmer. On her 10th birthday, her father unveils a new museum attraction: A large water tank with a sign in front that reads “The Human Mermaid: Coralie.”
That horrific moment sets the stage for the love story that follows. Swimming the Hudson River to keep in shape for her mermaid duties, Coralie stumbles upon a tall, handsome man in the woods, roasting fish over a fire. She is instantly entranced, but their paths will not cross again for some time, except in their dreams.
Like Coralie, Eddie is a motherless child, and he rejects his Orthodox father's life as a garment worker to work for Adam Hochman, a Brooklyn clairvoyant and finder of wayward husbands.
Hoffman salts her love story with historic figures, like Hochman, and events. Her depiction of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire that killed 146 people, mostly young seamstresses, in 1911 is so vivid you can practically hear the screams and bodies smashing into the pavement.
The museum falls on hard times as its rival Dreamland thrives. When Coralie becomes entangled by a dead girl's body as she swims, Professor Sardie seizes a gruesome opportunity to create the “monster” sea creature that he believes will lure crowds back to his museum.
Hoffman is expert at depicting people who are often considered life's “others”: outsiders, the lonely, the grief-stricken. In short, all of us at some point in our lives. The wrap-up feels a bit rushed, but if you're looking for an enchanting love story rich with history and a sense of place, step right up to “The Museum of Extraordinary Things.”
Patty Rhule is a contributing writer for USA Today.
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