Museum of Extraordinary Things an Extraordinary Triumph

Alice Hoffman
Scribner 978-145163560, 368 pp.
* * * * *

I've long enjoyed Alice Hoffman's novels, though I always thought her just a notch or two above "guilty pleasures." Many of her previous books, including her famed Practical Magic, delve into the supernatural but even her darkness had a New Age glow and her style was literate, but not literary. Until now. The Museum of Extraordinary Things is set in turn-of-the-twentieth-century New York and its labyrinthine plot twists and rich detail are evocative of works from E. L. Doctorow and Caleb Carr. Throw in a heavy dose of Jane Eyre, a dollop of Elephant Man, incendiary tragedy, and several, odd romances, and you've got The Museum of Extraordinary Things. Sort of.

New York was a very different place around 1900. Coney Island, where much of the book is set, had become a playground, but it was also akin to the Wild West whose protean energy conjured seaside analogies to Mark Twain's descriptions of the Virginia City, Nevada, of his young adulthood. Coney Island featured tawdry dancehalls, saloons, vice dens, and amusements parks, the latter a strange mix of glittery new technology (like roller coasters and electric lights) and down-market freak-shows.  Venture any distance from the developed strips, and Brooklyn became farms, marshes, and a repository of homesteaders and outcasts. In Hoffman's novel, it's also the home of the namesake museum, presided over by one Professor Sardie, who passes himself off as a learned man whose 'attractions' such as Goat Boy, a 100-year-old giant turtle, Bee Woman, and Malia the Butterfly are packaged as 'scientific' and 'authentic,' not like those fakes peddled by Barnum or the hucksters who've just opened nearby Dreamland Amusement Park. Except, of course, they're not. One of his star attractions is his own daughter, Coralie, who was born with webbing between several of her fingers and swims like the mermaid he bills her to be. Just add a convincing tail costume and voila!

Coralie's story soon intersects with that of Eddie, born Ezekiel Cohen, who reinvents himself and loses his faith after witnessing the shame of his father's presumed suicide attempt. We cross the East River to Manhattan, where the Lower East Side isn't any tamer than Coney Island. It's pretty easy for Eddie to disappear into a world of pick pockets, gangs, and tenement house petty crime–all of which he samples before becoming, first, a street detective for a man named Hochman who allows himself to be considered a seer and Jewish version of Sherlock Holmes; and then assistant and heir to photographer Moses Levy, another lapsed Jew. Among the members of the Jewish community, Eddie is a contemptuous apostate. In other words, he's as marginal as the unfortunates displayed in Sardie's museum.

Here's what I'll give you to whet your appetite: a Hudson River sea monster, a missing girl, an erudite Wolfman, a stolen watch, a Dutch hermit, an actual wolf, a Pitbull, horrors real and imagined, and a cast of characters with more secrets than the CIA. Real people also pop in and out of the novel—including Walt Whitman, Alfred Stieglitz, and Seth Low. This is a book about faith lost and regained, trust given and withdrawn, surface ugliness and inner beauty (and its reverse), and the roots you can prune and those that go too deep to dig out. The denouement comes in 1911 in a chain set off by two spectacular and deadly fires, that of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory and that of Dreamland. That fine piece of crafting is one of many in a novel that rockets between horror and hope. It is a triumph from start to finish. I was wrong—Alice Hoffman is a major literary figure.
Rob Weir

PS—For me, this novel surpasses my previous favorite Alice Hoffman work, The River King (2000). The latter is not one of her better-known works, but if you like Museum of Extraordinary Things, pick up The River King.

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