Friday, March 6, 2015

Historical Fiction: The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman

The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman is yet another selection I picked out from the nominations in the Goodreads Choice Awards. As some readers may recall from previous blog posts, I am a fan of amusement parks and thrill rides, and while Hoffman's novel isn't necessarily about an amusement park, it does contain a lot of the general atmosphere as the main female protagonist resides in a house containing oddities that are part of a, for lack of a better term, freak show. Plus, Coney Island is close by and the museum must compete with the attractions of the much bigger and fancier amusement parks. The description on the book jacket also gave the story the feel of something like Emily Morgenstern's The Night Circus, which I ultimately found to be disappointing, but I did generally like the descriptions and characters.

The Situation: It is 1911 in New York City, and Coralie Sardie has a nightly obligation as a part of her father's Museum of Extraordinary Things. Since she was a young girl, the professor has trained Coralie to be an excellent swimmer. Not only can she swim in extremely cold temperatures for a much longer amount of time than normal, but she can also hold her breath for an incredible amount of time, making it seem as if she has no need for any air at all. So the professor shows her off every night as a mermaid, allowing the birth defect that gave her webbing between her fingers lend to the fantasy. Meanwhile, in Brooklyn, Eddie Cohen is somewhat of a loner, but with some peculiar if helpful skills. He used to work for a man who was paid to find people, and he still remembers everything the man taught him, which will prove useful in a task he is given by a man searching for his lost daughter. But Eddie has also managed to become an incredibly skilled photographer, even though the types of pictures he is known for taking don't exactly make him a welcome sight with the general public. These two people live in the same city, but somehow worlds apart. Even so, a series of strange events will bring them together.

The Problem: The growing attractions at the nearby amusement park, which also has a freak show of its own in Dreamland, cause the professor to steadily lose business, as well as willing workers. As such losses make him more and more desperate to find an attraction worthy of bringing a large crowd, he also forces to Coralie to put on a different type of show that is only meant for certain visitors late at night. The more Coralie performs, and the more she learns about her father, the more miserable and defiant she becomes. And it is their discovery one night by the river, a discovery that the professor believes will save his museum and solve their money problems, that will bring Eddie into their lives, changing all three of them forever.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a historical fiction novel set in early 20th century New York City. Some events that are central to the plot, such as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, and the 1911 fire on Coney Island, did really happen. And it is Eddie's presence at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire that causes him to be called upon to search for a local man's missing daughter, who should have been at the factory at the time, but isn't among the surviving or the dead. As Coralie lives with her father and shares the house with his freak show, there is much description of both living and preserved things that many don't often see in nature. There are disfigured animals in jars; men as hairy as wolves; a "butterfly girl" with no arms, but wings that she puts on when she is at the museum; and even a 100 year-old giant tortoise kept in a pen. Coralie herself is billed as a mermaid girl because of her ability to stay underwater, and the blue dye the professor has her apply to her skin. It is an interesting look at what people will pay to see and how they choose to entertain themselves. 

My Verdict: Ultimately, while the premise for this book sounds both promising and fascinating, I found the entire story to be incredibly disappointing. And the disappointment I felt reminded me a lot of how I felt at the end of Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus, with the difference being that at least I enjoyed The Night Circus right up until the ending. With The Museum of Extraordinary Things, I was only about 50 pages in when I felt this novel to be a letdown. While The Night Circus had beautiful descriptions and settings, as well as characters I could hold onto, Hoffman's book was strung together by a series of events that felt forced. And not only did the characters not feel like real people, I also couldn't get myself to care what happened to them. Much of the novel seemed rushed through, as if it was written in a hurry, to beat a deadline, and maybe it was.

Favorite Moment: When Coralie and Eddie manage to set the 100 year-old tortoise free.

Favorite Character: Even though she had her own set of problems to deal with, Coralie's caretaker, Maureen, is devoted to her charge and refuses to leave her, even though she could easily do so and live her own happy life away from the sinister professor who often mistreats her. 

Recommended Reading: I am actually going to recommend The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, even though I find the ending to be lacking. But I recommend it because of the similarities it shares with Hoffman's story, and, like I said before, it also has better descriptions and better characters.  

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