Review: ‘The Museum of Extraordinary Things’ by Alice Hoffman

 

Blurb from GoodReads:

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

Review:

Another Hoffman review. It’s no secret that Alice Hoffman is one of my favourite writers- ‘Practical Magic’ is one of my favourite books, and I love her trademark wistful, whimsical descriptions of the unusual sprinklings of magic- and romance- found in everyday American suburbia. However, this book just did not do it for me. I appreciate that Hoffman was (apparently) trying to do something different by not concentrating on small town life, and instead presenting a more Gothic, sprawling tale, this time in New York City in 1911- a time of profound change and upheaval. But for me, this novel turned out to be both confusing and unnerving.

TMOET‘ basically involves a star-crossed romance between Coralie Sardie, the  neglected daughter of a manipulative, controlling sideshow owner who uses her- and her webbed fingers- as one of his exhibitions- and Eddie, a vulnerable Orthodox immigrant who had run away to follow his dreams of photography. And that’s just ‘basically.’ In more detail, it also involves a romance between Coralie’s housekeeper/mother figure, Maureen, and the Wolfman of her father’s exhibit, the horrific Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, the disappearance of a young woman, curios, exhibits, a mermaid-like creature in the River Hudson…it just goes on. The premise for this was promising, and yet the writing did not flood my mind and set my senses tingling like some of Hoffman’s other work. The horror of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire made me feel almost nauseous, it was so graphically described- I actually found it incredibly upsetting/harrowing, and it’s not something I’d recommend for younger readers, or anyone of a sensitive disposition.

Coralie’s life within the circus didn’t strike me as new or refreshing, either- it reminded me too much of Elin Morgenstern’s ‘The Night Circus,’ the romance between her and Eddie too similar to ‘Water for Elephants’, and the dark allure of the curio and the circus exhibition/sideshow and the history of Coney Island has been explored in many novels. Her webbed fingers also reminded me of Pearl’s webbed fingers in Essie Fox’s ‘Elijah and the Mermaid’- another piece of Gothic historical fiction, except that Fox’s version was, I feel, executed with more success. Here, the plot felt confused, twisted and murky, and I didn’t feel connected to Eddie’s character. It was slower-paced than the 100-year old turtle in Coralie’s father’s twisted exhibition. I struggled to keep a grip on all the various plot threads-the missing girl, the factory fire, Eddie’s past, Coralie’s tentative future- and in the end I couldn’t finish it. Disappointing.

Overall rating; 1 out of 10

This book in four words: Dark. Unnerving. Confusing. Chilling.

Read if you enjoyed: ‘The Night Circus‘ by Elin Morgenstern

Favourite character: No-one. Nada. Nope.

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