Alice Hoffman’s The Museum of Extraordinary Things (Scribner, 384 pp.) is an examination of the search for love in strange places. It is also a contemplation of what comprises beauty. Set against the backdrop of turn-of-the-century New York City and Coney Island, the novel creates a magical portrait of two wayward people who struggle to find their true selves. The author will be at SCAD Atlanta on Friday, February 21 at 6 p.m.
The mysterious, taciturn Professor Sardie owns the Museum of Extraordinary Things, a collection of oddities: Wolfman, a man covered completely by hair; a girl with arms that resemble butterfly wings. If he cannot find a new attraction, he makes it. He has trained his daughter Coralie Sardie since birth to be a mermaid.
Professor Sardie creates a hoax to captivate an audience desperate for escape from revelations about the tragic fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. Soon fishermen report sightings of a mysterious fishlike creature that haunts the Hudson River at night. As Coralie pulls herself through the freezing river, she soon realizes that these midnight swims might also serve her purposes. The freedom of her time on the river enables her to imagine a life without her tyrannical father.
As Coralie struggles to find ways to escape her suffocating childhood, Eddie Cohen has already broken out of his. Born of Ukrainian Orthodox Jews, he immigrates to New York with his father where the two find factory work. Eddie tires quickly of the drudgery and takes a job with a local mystic who purports to have the ability to find missing people. To his father’s disappointment, Eddie changes his name from Ezekial, cuts his long Orthodox-style hair and discovers that he has a knack for locating the disappeared. He is soon hired to locate a young woman who never returned home after the Triangle factory fire. As Eddie begins the search, he starts a journey down a tangled path that will eventually lead him to Coralie.
Hoffman’s characters are surrounded by an evolving New York City, as concrete sprawl threatens pastoral land on the northern parts of Manhattan. The tension between the encroaching city and idyllic nature is a key motif. Hoffman suggests that nature — no matter how monstrous it may appear — is preferable to anything man-made. Wolfman might look terrifying, but he is a well-spoken Southern gentleman with a passion for Walt Whitman. Wolfman’s “monstrosity” contrasts with Sardie’s sadistic creation of Coralie as mermaid. The suggestion that beauty lies in startling places suffuses the novel.
Although the novel’s title refers to Sardie’s Coney Island museum, it soon becomes clear that Hoffman intends it to encompass the entire landscape of her story. There are indeed extraordinary sights, but the extraordinary actions — a mother’s selflessness, two strangers grasping an unexpected love — provide the most fantastic elements in the story. In a world of opportunism and exploitation, love proves to be the most cherished rarity.
Enveloping this compelling tale is Hoffman’s signature writing style. In language full of vibrant images and details, Hoffman weaves a story of enchantment. Intriguing characters playing out a mesmerizing plot, Hoffman’s newest novel is an indulgence for the senses and a bewitching adventure.