Review

The Museum of Extraordinary Things

by Alice Hoffman

Two worlds are about to collide --- that of an abused young woman and a disenchanted man --- in the early years of the 1900s.

If Coralie Sardie had lived another life, in another time and place, she might have become a champion swimmer, a lauded athlete with garlands crowning her head, surrounded by crowds… Instead, she swam in the Hudson as dusk crossed the horizon, making certain to keep to the shadows.

Coralie Sardie’s life revolved around water. Born with a defect  (webbed fingers), she seemed a natural, if abnormal. Her father, the Professor, called himself a man of science and ran the Museum of Extraordinary Things, with displays of what he deemed treasures. Most people would call the museum a freak show. Coralie’s father was a master of euphemisms. In the Manhattan of 1911, such oddities of nature generally had a bad lot, often beaten or arrested because of their physical differences. Coralie tended to feel a sort of kinship with them, struggling between compassion and sympathy, two qualities her father did not possess.

"THE MUSEUM OF EXTRAORDINARY THINGS is an extraordinary book. Alice Hoffman’s pacing is spot on, starting slowly and building steadily to a grand finale. Her characters are so fully realized that you will lose yourself in their lives, ache for their heartbreak, and cry for their miseries."

Ezekiel Cohen’s life, on the other hand, revolved around fire.

My father brought me to this country from the Ukraine, where our people were murdered merely because of our faith, our blood marking the snow…My mother died in that far-off place. She was alone in our small wooden house when the wild men on horseback came to burn our village.

An immigrant at a young age, motherless and confused, Ezekiel changed his name to Eddie when he suspected his father of a weakness he could not tolerate. He grew to detest the man and finally ran off to chase his newly discovered passion: photography. Through the camera’s lens, he learned to view the world in a new way. The truth was captured in pictures, he believed. In pictures, a person reveals his innermost self, a rare and unforgettable experience for the photographer. Once Eddie saw Coralie, he couldn’t forget her.

How could there be two more unlikely lovers?

Eddie didn’t know it, but she had seen him first, spied on him from afar when she swam off course one night. Coralie stared in fascination at the young man, instantly smitten, but knowing she was unworthy of such a person’s attention. The cover of darkness hid her deformed hands at nighttime; gloves hid them during the daytime. But what brought them together was as much a result of adversity as it was passion, for this is a story of lies, deceit, love and redemption.

Early 20th-century New York was a mean place, the streets nearly lawless as it suffered through hard growing pains. Women especially had much to fear and little support if they ventured outside their homes unescorted. Thus it was that Coralie stayed with an abusive father, despite her rebellious nature. She could hope for a better future, but why would anyone, especially someone as handsome as Eddie, look twice at the likes of her? She was a freak, just like her father’s displays. And the more her father involved her in the work of the museum, the less worthy she believed herself to be.

THE MUSEUM OF EXTRAORDINARY THINGS is an extraordinary book. Alice Hoffman’s pacing is spot on, starting slowly and building steadily to a grand finale. Her characters are so fully realized that you will lose yourself in their lives, ache for their heartbreak, and cry for their miseries. As much a mystery as a love story, this novel is rich in layers of human failings and triumphs. It showcases two people’s relationships with their one remaining parent and how devastating misunderstandings can rob a person of so much. Conversely, it demonstrates the amazing power of love and hate. Hoffman takes an ugly subject and approaches it with careful respect before beating it senseless and replacing it with something wondrous. In her hands, every word is itself a treasure.

Reviewed by Kate Ayers on February 21, 2014

The Museum of Extraordinary Things
by Alice Hoffman