Enter New York City circa 1911…
The Museum of Extrordinary Things is a museum of living wonders, or freak show, on Cony Island. Professor Sardie runs his museum with an iron fist and the disturbing ability to view his employees as investments as opposed to people. Hoffman’s novel follows the lives, and eventual relationship, of Sardie’s daughter Coralie and Russian immigrant Eddie.
Born with webbed hands, Coralie spends her childhood practicing distance swimming and submerging herself in frigid water for extended periods of time in preparation for her debut as a living mermaid in her father’s museum. Running parallel to Coralie’s tale is the story of Eddie (born Ezekiel). Eddie and his father escape the brutality of life as Russian Orthodox Jews, and immigrant to New York where his father earns a meager living as a tailor. Discontent with what he views as his father’s weaknesses, Eddie searches out other mentors within the community, eventually creating a new identity for himself as a journalistic photographer called Eddie.
The true beauty of this novel lies within its historically rich detail and Hoffman’s skill at capturing the essence of New York City during this turbulent time period. Though the freak show theme is darkly fascinating, the most disturbing and moving scenes in The Museum of Extrordinary Things are based on actual events. On multiple occasions I stopped reading to do further research, prompting me to learn a good deal about the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire and the Cony Island Dreamland Amusement Park Fire. The terror and human drama of these historical catastrophes embody the overall tone of the novel and capture the shifting political and pecuniary movements of the city during this time period.
If you are looking for a unhurried adventure with interesting characters and the a depth of historical research flavoring the overall tenor of the writing I highly recommend you check out The Museum of Extraordinary Things at VBPL. And, if you enjoy Hoffman’s writing style you may also like her other works including The Dovekeepers: A Novel.