The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman
Alice Hoffman is one of those writer’s whose books I keep a lookout for. She usually writes stories with a slight fantasy or magical element, although The Dovekeepers was a step out of character in that respect. So, did I crack open the pages of this book with maybe slightly elevated and maybe higher than average expectations? Maybe. Did it meet my expectations? In some respects, yes, although perhaps not all. I confess that I have slightly mixed feelings for this book. I enjoyed it and it was easy to read but I can’t with honesty say that I absolutely loved it which is puzzling because it’s such a good concept and set in a fascinating period of time.
The story is set in New York during 1911 and uses actual events of the period to progress the tale. We follow two main characters. Ezekiel and Coralie. Ezekiel is a Jewish immigrant who fled with his father after their small village was razed and the other inhabitants murdered. They eventually wound up in New York city where they struggled to make a living both working in clothing factories and suffering dreadful working conditions. Coralie is the daughter of the local museum owner which in actual fact is more like a sideshow of oddities – the painted lady, wolfman, etc. She’s led an incredibly sheltered and withdrawn life suffering herself from a slight affliction and with a father who has raised her to think of herself as something that must be hidden. She’s at ease with the unusual objects contained behind the curtains of the museum that separates the displays from their home life and equally content around the employees that her father takes on during the high season to attract customers. Coralie eventually becomes one of the attractions on display at the museum and to this extent her father has raised her to be a strong swimmer, encouraging late night swims in all weathers and trying to prolong the length of time that she can stay underwater without having to surface for air. In the eyes of the patrons Coralie is a mermaid!
During Coralie’s progression into this role Ezekiel’s story is also moving forward. He feels bitterness for his father, believing him to be cowardly, he also feels great anger for the way in which they live holding strong resentment for the factory owners and the comfort in which they live at the expense and misery of their employees. He eventually rebels against his father and his religion and leaves home. Following a chance encounter he becomes an apprentice to a well known and ground breaking photographer. This in turn leads Ezekiel (or Eddie as he is now known) to work on the local newspapers where he encounters many disturbing and grisly sights. He is called to work on an event when a factory blaze results in the deaths of many workers who it appears had been locked into their workroom on the ninth floor. Many of these workers jumped to their deaths rather than being consumed by the flames. It’s a terrible and horrifying evening that provokes unrest throughout the city. During the events of that night a young woman goes missing. It could be she was killed in the factory but her body has not been recovered and her father has sought out Eddie to help him search for her. Eddie’s searches will eventually draw him to the river Hudson which is where he will have his first encounter with Coralie – although he doesn’t actually see her as she watches him from the secrecy of the forest he is aware that he’s being watched. From then onwards their stories start to entwine more with both of them feeling unaccountably drawn to each other.
What I really liked from this story and took away from it was that things are not always as they appear on the surface. Both characters have very different upbringings but whilst Eddy is angry and resentful of his family he has in actual fact been the focus of more family love than he is aware. On the other side Coralie seems to have been raised by a father who loves her and keeps her safe and protected and yet his motives are not completely selfless. It’s an interesting concept that makes you think about the story for days after you finish reading. And, things are not what they seem on other levels than the two main families. There are the deceptions within the museum and between the employees of Coralie’s father. On top of this I also thought Hoffman created a really exciting ending with plenty of tension.
In terms of criticisms – I struggled a little with Eddie. I could understand Coralie’s behaviour a lot more than his and whilst sometimes I felt frustrated with her because I wanted her to be more courageous I could understand why she wasn’t able to rise to certain challenges and was so browbeaten. Eddie’s actions on the other hand feel a little contrived for me. He’s not a bad character per se but certain of his actions just puzzled, frustrated or plain annoyed me. I can see he was supposed to come off as a very brooding and dark individual and I like that and think that Hoffman succeeds in that respect I just don’t think his actions always felt real. And, in spite of his moody and antagonistic nature he certainly seemed to attract his share of people and animals who help him throughout his life. I suppose I wanted to feel more for him than I actually did. I also felt the two storylines took quite a long time to eventually cross paths and yet once they did the love story element was instantaneous. I don’t mind the slow burner aspect but I felt that once Eddie and Coralie finally met things were just too rushed.
On the whole, this was a good read. I was quite captivated by Coralie and her story. The time period was fascinating to read about as was the setting. I also liked reading about Eddie’s past. The writing is evocative and although I didn’t find this quite as magical as some the author’s previous works it was still an enjoyable novel.
I’m adding this to my reads for Stainless Steel Droppings Once Upon a Time reading event.