Welcome to the August/September pick for the Fields & Fantasies book club! Each month or so, in collaboration with my wonderful co-host Diana of Strahbary’s Fields, we’ll pick one book to read and discuss. Today, we’re looking at The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman:
Mesmerizing and illuminating, Alice Hoffman’s The Museum of Extraordinary Things is the story of an electric and impassioned love between two vastly different souls in New York during the volatile first decades of the twentieth century.
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.
True confession time: I did not finish this book.
I seem to have a love/hate relationship with Alice Hoffman’s novels. The ones I love, I love wholeheartedly — The Dovekeepers, Practical Magic, Second Nature, among others. But when I don’t like them, I really don’t (Here on Earth comes to mind… with a big shudder to go with it).
I started Museum with high expectations — the setting, the era, and the description all appealed to me. But as I began to read, I found myself in the weird situation of loving the beautiful writing… and having no compelling interest in the story itself. To me, it felt slow and disjointed. Each chapter begins with pages upon pages of a character’s history — all in italics, which is annoying to read after a while — and then more pages picking up the story in the main timeline of the book. As a portrait of odd characters, it’s an impressive piece of writing, and the language itself is lovely. Still, the storyline as a whole simply didn’t hold my attention. Finally, at around page 130, I couldn’t convince myself to continue forward, and closed the covers.
I will say that one particular section, a detailed description of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, is especially breathtaking and beautifully crafted. Unfortunately, the individual moments of great writing never coalesced into a story engaging enough to keep me motivated to stick with it.
My F&F partner Diana has a different take on Museum. You can view her review in its entirety on her blog, and it’s excerpted here:
Overall I liked the story. I haven’t read that much about New York City during the turn of the century. The culture clashes and new immigrants made it dangerous and exotic. I think Alice created a good glimpse into the world at that time. Each story progressed on its own and then merged about half way through the book. Which created a slow build that eventually paid off.
I really like Coralie and Eddie. Especially once they met. They both matured as the story progressed. There were a number of secondary characters that I really enjoyed, though I have to say I prefer the freaks that were around Coralie more so because they felt like complete characters. In many ways, the people that Eddie interacted with in the first half of the book felt like stereotypes in some parts.
I wanted to know more about our different takes on the story. Did Diana see something in it that I didn’t? And so, I asked her. Here’s a Q&A between Diana and me about The Museum of Extraordinary Things. Warning: SPOILERS from this point forward. Proceed at your own risk!
What was your favorite part of the story?
I really enjoyed the secondary characters. I have a good friend who is always more fond of the secondary characters in most books that we read and right now I feel like her. As much as I like Eddie and Coralie, I like the secondary characters more. We start to see a relationship form between Maureen, the “professor’s maid” and the wolf man (whom I loved btw) and I really liked their story. Likewise, why was Maureen so attached to Coralie so much so that she would put up with an abusive father? I would love to have known more about what was going in Maureen’s head.
What was your least favorite part?
Some of the immigrant characters seemed like stereotypes. They were just a generalized mass of people, those that did have character development didn’t really seem logical. For example Eddie’s father. He was a runner, and came off as a fairly weak character but all of a sudden at the end we find out his dad was some tough labor activist. It didn’t fit.
What three words come to mind when you think about the plot?
Slow: if I hadn’t been so curious about the historical elements to the book I probably would have dropped it before I became invested in the main characters.
Simple: there aren’t any major revelations that you don’t see coming. But the plot adequately gets you from point a to point b.
Accurate: one of my biggest pet peeves in historic fiction is when the author doesn’t do their homework. The history of Coney Island and the Labor movement was spot on.
Is this more of a character study or more plot-driven?
It’s hard to say. I would like to say that it’s more of a character study because of the detail that is put into the main characters and those closest to them.
What would you say to try to convince me to read this?
I haven’t convinced you so far?? The second half of the book is SO much better. Give it just a little more time. The characters will grow on you.
Is there any one thing about this book that makes it really stand out for you?
The whole historic freak show/circus element. It’s actually started me on a Gothic/steampunk circus kick. There was a period in our history where these circuses and freak shows were big attractions. I have really found it fascinating.
Have you read other books by this author? If so, how would you rank this one compared to the others?
You know this is the first book by Alice Hoffman that I have read. Which is odd because the movie Practical Magic is one of my favorite movies. I have heard people on a number of occasions say they weren’t fond of her writing but I quite liked this book and plan on reading more.
Thanks, Diana! I can’t say I’m convinced, but at least I have a sense of what you liked about the book and what I might have come to appreciate if I’d gone a bit further! I don’t think I’ll go back to this one, but I can see that the historical elements probably would have continued to be the most interesting part of the book for me.
Next for Fields & Fantasies:
To get in the mood for Halloween, we’re picking a horror story for October. Can’t wait to finally read Horns by Joe Hill.