Reading Alice Hoffman’s latest novel, “The Museum of Extraordinary Things” (Scribner, 2014), reminded me of watching documentaries with lovely time-lapse photography of flowers growing and blooming. Several memorable characters grow, evolve and discover mysteries and characteristics in themselves in a deep and interesting way during the course of the book.
Hoffman seems to delight in shedding light on different historical periods and inventing characters who react to the particular challenges of their time. In her popular novel “The Dovekeepers” (Scribner, 2011), for example, she writes movingly of the struggles of four women who live in 79 A.D. on Masada, the mountain fortress in the Judean desert.
In “The Museum of Extraordinary Things,” Hoffman transports readers to Coney Island, N.Y., in the period from 1904 to 1911. A young man named Eddie meets and falls in love with Coralie during a time of tremendous change and upheaval. The author tells the story of Eddie and Coralie and the people who are central to their lives against the backdrop of current events that include the development of large amusements parks on Coney Island, the disastrous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911 and the nascent labor union movement in New York.
Coralie is the daughter of Professor Sardie, who owns and runs out of their home a small museum, where he displays all sorts of unusual people and items for public viewing. There is a man with an extraordinarily hairy body – dubbed “Wolfman” by Professor Sardie – who is showcased along with a man who eats fire, a hand with eight fingers, a human skull with horns, an ancient living tortoise and other people with physical oddities. Although Coralie is at first protected from even seeing the sights of the museum, she discovers as she matures that her father has been training her from birth to actually be one of the exhibits. With some makeup and her naturally occurring web fingers, she is put on display in a large tank of water and labeled a mermaid.
Eddie, on the other hand, experiences a more conventional upbringing with his widowed father, typical of poor immigrants from Russia. Because of a misunderstanding, however, he leaves his father while a teenager and lives by his wits through different occupations and in a variety of locations in New York. He initially works for Abraham Hochman, who employs young boys to find people and things for a fee; later, he becomes a professional photographer. Late in the story he becomes embroiled in the mysterious disappearance of a young seamstress and uses his skills to uncover her whereabouts.
“The Museum of Extraordinary Things” is nicely framed between the construction of Dreamland – a large, real-life amusement park with so-called freak shows, animal acts and a dazzling display of electrification – and the park’s destruction when it burns to the ground in a horrifying accident that sends visitors, local residents and wild animals into the streets.
This is a beautifully written book, a well-constructed blend of fictional characters and real-life people, places and events. Coralie evolves slowly and convincingly from a passive young girl who always obeys her father into a rebel: “On that night I was able to see the truth about my future and my fate. I was born to disobey him.”
Book clubs that enjoyed “Water for Elephants” by Sara Gruen (Algonquin Books, 2006) and “The Golem and the Jinni” by Helene Wecker (HarperCollins, 2013) should especially enjoy “The Museum of Extraordinary Things.”
Leslie Ashmore is a longtime Mountain View resident who belongs to two book clubs.