April 6, 2014

Review: The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman

Title: The Museum of Extraordinary Things
Author: Alice Hoffman
Release Date: February 18th, 2014
Publisher: Scribner
Page Count: 384
Source: Borrowed from Work
First Reaction: This book was absolutely amazing. Until the last 100 pages and then it wasn't anymore.
Coralie Sardie is the daughter of the sinister impresario behind The Museum of Extraordinary Things, a Coney Island boardwalk freak show that thrills the masses. An exceptional swimmer, Coralie appears as the Mermaid in her father's museum, alongside performers like the Wolfman, the Butterfly Girl, and a one-hundred-year-old turtle. 

One night Coralie stumbles upon a striking young man taking pictures of moonlit trees in the woods off the Hudson River. The dashing photographer is Eddie Cohen, a Russian immigrant who has run away from his father's Lower East Side Orthodox community and his job as a tailor's apprentice. When Eddie photographs the devastation on the streets of New York following the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, he becomes embroiled in the suspicious mystery behind a young woman's disappearance and ignites the heart of Coralie.

With its colorful crowds of bootleggers, heiresses, thugs, and idealists, New York itself becomes a riveting character as Hoffman weaves her trademark magic, romance, and masterful storytelling to unite Coralie and Eddie in a sizzling, tender, and moving story of young love in tumultuous times. The Museum of Extraordinary Things is Alice Hoffman at her most spellbinding.

[Summary Source: Goodreads]


Coralie is the main attraction at her father's freak show in early 1900s Coney Island. Eddie is a Jewish refugee who's abandoned his father and community and now meanders lifelessly around Manhattan, trying to make a living. Over the course of this book, Coralie and Eddie share their pasts and their lives as they happen until they meet and save each other from empty lives trapped in cages they can't escape.

Let's break this down:

The Museum of Extraordinary Things takes place in early 1900s New York City. Which is obviously the reason why I thought this book was worth reading. But more specifically, this book really focused on the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire and the big fire that hit Coney Island not long after. I've never read a piece of fiction about these two particular events, but the historical bits, as well as Eddie and Coralie's emotional responses to everything really struck a cord. Not to mention, the detail in the prose was so lush I felt like I was there, experiencing both of those fires, as well as what Manhattan was like back then, before all of the buildings and the cars and whatever else.

Fire obviously plays a large role in this story. So, really, this is a book about rebirth. Which makes sense because Coralie is a girl demoralized, kept under her father's thumb, and made to think she has no other future because of some webbing between her fingers. She is the sea monster and/or the mermaid and can't seem to get away from that. But she can and she does. She finds her reinvention at the end of the book despite all of the strife and sadness that make up her life.

Eddie's past is similarly repressive - at least in his mind. He came to New York with his father from Eastern Europe after his town was burnt down and his mother killed in the blaze (more fire/rebirth). After the fire in Europe, Eddie separates himself from his religious father and, while he doesn't strike out on his own until a few years later, it's clear the world of his father does not belong to him. So this book, for Eddie, is about the limbo between abandoning the only community you know and make your way in the world as someone new, someone you don't hate the way Eddie seems to hate himself throughout the course of the book.

The secondary characters in this book were also excellent. No matter how big or small the role, each person introduced in this book got their time to shine. They were seamlessly woven into the story and very casually influenced elements that drove the plot forward in the most perfect way. No character was unnecessary and each one of them made their way into my heart, for the good or the bad, no matter how small the part.

Now, despite all this good stuff, there's some bad stuff I have to dig into...

My big issues with this book is the romance and the ending. Once Coralie and Eddie meet, things just sort of tumble into this odd love at first sight story that just doesn't do it for me. Not to mention, I feel like the last few scenes are kind of rushed and not as fully fleshed out as the rest of the book - which might be a literary device, but not one I enjoy. And, while the first 250 pages of the book were told in alternating point of views, the last few chapters once Coralie and Eddie found themselves together arbitrarily switch off mid-scene. It was very distracting and had a hard time figuring out whose mind was guiding the story.

Basically: At the end of the book there was this huge departure from everything I loved about The Museum of Extraordinary Things (the history, the self-discovery, the life choices...) that left this bitter taste in my mouth. Of course, this makes me very sad because I really did like everything about this book up until that point.

The long and short of it?

Plot: Great, until the end.
World Building: Phenomenal.
Character Development: Coralie and Eddie absolutely break my heart... until they get together at the end of the book and I just don't care about them or anything they do anymore.
Prose: Lush and exquisite until the end when everything just trips all over itself and I don't know what's happening.
Would I Recommend This Book?: If you're in it for the history - and not just of Manhattan, but also of Jews in Manhattan, Coney Island, and even Jews in Eastern Europe - I'd give this one a read. But if you're in it for the whole package and a phenomenal ending, this might not be the book for you.

So, what do you think of my foray into Adult Fiction? Do you think you'll pick this one up? Or have you already read it? Whatever the case, let me know your thoughts in the comments below!