The Museum of Extraordinary Things – Alice Hoffman – review

Simon and Schuster


Coney Island, 1911: Coralie Sardie is the daughter of a self-proclaimed scientist and professor who acts as the impresario of The Museum of Extraordinary Things, a boardwalk freak show offering amazement and entertainment to the masses. An extraordinary swimmer, Coralie appears as the Mermaid alongside performers like the Wolfman, the Butterfly Girl,and a 100 year old turtle, in her father’s “”museum””. She swims regularly in New York’s Hudson River, and one night stumbles upon a striking young man alone in the woods photographing moon-lit trees. From that moment, Coralie knows her life will never be the same.
The dashing photographer Coralie spies is Eddie Cohen, a Russian immigrant who has run away from his father’s Lower East Side Orthodox community. As Eddie photographs the devastation on the streets of New York following the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, he becomes embroiled in the mystery behind a young woman’s disappearance and the dispute between factory owners and labourers. In the tumultuous times that characterized life in New York between the world wars, Coralie and Eddie’s lives come crashing together in Alice Hoffman’s mesmerizing, imaginative, and romantic new novel.

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3 of 5 stars

I received a copy of this novel from the publishers via Net Galley and this is my honest review.

Coralie Sardie has lived at her father’s Museum of Extraordinary Things her whole life. Though she was sheltered from the contents of the museum until she was ten she has grown up surrounded by the people paid to perform there, the ‘freaks’ on show to entertain the masses. Born herself with a deformity, having webbed hands she keeps covered, she is trained by her father to hold her breath in water for long periods, and develops a talent for swimming.

When she is ten she is introduced to the world inside the museum and soon enough becomes one of the exhibits, the Mermaid, spending her days in a tank of water.

One night when Coralie is swimming in the Hudson River she comes across Eddie Cohen. This chance meeting sets into motion a series of events that lead her to question everything her father stands for, her past and her future.

Eddie Cohen has fled from his past, his family and his faith. He has inherited his photography business from his mentor and spends his days trying to find what is missing from his life, without knowing what that is. His past catches up with him when he is asked to investigate the disappearance of a young woman. His investigation leads him to discover more about his past, himself and his future.

Though I have heard of Alice Hoffman, she being the author of many works of fiction including Practical Magic, this was the first novel of hers I have read.

There is a lovely atmosphere to this book. Alice Hoffman evokes what I imagine 1900’s New York and Coney Island to be like – the gaudy entertainment, the poverty and the struggle to ‘fit in’. It has a sense of magic woven into it even though it is not magic that fills the Museum, just the extraordinary works of nature.

It is a story of two people who searching for something they didn’t know they were looking for and finding more than they expected in the process. It weaves fact into fiction, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire and the fire at Dreamlands Amusement Park are integral to the story. It is also the story of two fathers, both misunderstood for different reasons, their true natures coming to light and with that providing different forms of liberation.

An enjoyable read, I’ll look out for more novels from Alice Hoffman.

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