Monday, March 2, 2015

The Museum of Extraordinary Things

The Museum of Extraordinary Things: A NovelThe Museum of Extraordinary Things: A Novel by Alice Hoffman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

3 1/2 stars
[WARNING - some spoilers in this review]

I read this book for our book club, as we had previously read The Dovekeepers and had all really loved that one. I'm writing this before our club meets, so I don't know what others think of it, but I didn't think it was quite as good as that one. At least it didn't quite grip me they way The Dovekeepers did. So if you're coming to this after reading that one, be forewarned.

That being said, this is still a good book. As in The Dovekeepers, Hoffman does an excellent job of time and place, making you really feel the way people lived. This book is set in 1911 in New York City, when that city was in tumult politically and socially, and it was on the cusp of exploding into the great metropolis it is today. Hoffman has clearly done her homework on the various neighborhoods of the time, and the large areas of still semi-wild land that were soon swallowed up by development. So, 4 stars for the historical setting and mood.

But, I have to give it only 3 stars for the story. Don't get me wrong, the story is fascinating, but I think the style in which it was told kept me from really connecting to the characters. The book is divided into paired chapters: a chapter told in first person of one of the two main characters, followed by a third-person chapter focusing on that character. These pairs alternated between Coralie, whose father is the proprietor of the museum of the title, and Eddie (Ezekiel) Cohen, the son of an Orthodox Jewish refugee from the Ukraine. The stories of each character intersect only fleetingly, at first, but you can see that they are destined to find each other.

Framing the story of our characters are two devastating fires that actually happened: The Triangle Factory fire, where hundreds of garment workers died because the bosses had locked them into the factory floor, and the fire at Coney Island, which destroyed most of the rides and attractions along the pier. The Triangle Factory fire has a direct influence on the story line, when Eddie is asked to find a missing worker, who should have been in the fire but wasn't. Symbolically, the Triangle Fire is a fire of death, while the Coney Island fire gives life to Coralie and Eddie (even though it also caused many deaths).

The surface plot lines really serve only to help us explore the larger themes in the book. Both Eddie and Coralie have issues with their fathers. Eddie believes his father is a coward, and has turned his back on Judaism, and his father. He spends much of his life attaching himself to other father figures in an attempt to fill his need for fathering. Coralie's father is ever-present in her life - he is manipulative and controlling, training her to be a 'mermaid' in his museum. She spends her life trying to understand her father, and eventually learning to disobey him. In the end, we discover that Eddie deceived himself about his father, while Coralie's father was the one who deceived her. So this exploration of fatherhood, and how we both need it and also eventually must leave it plays a large role in the overall story.

There is also some really good stuff about the Hudson River - both Coralie and Eddie are drawn to it: she to swim in it (one of the few times she feels free), and Eddie to fish in it (again a time where he feels free). Animals are also somewhat important in this book: Eddie saves a drowning dog, and Coralie has much empathy for the animals held captive in her father's museum. The great tortoise, especially, seems to symbolize Coralie's life: he has only known captivity, but in the end he is freed by the fire, as is Coralie.

And, of course, there is the theme of 'the other' or 'the monster' - the side-show freaks that Coralie's father employs in his museum (of which she is one). We see them as people, just trying to make a living, yet the world sees them as monsters and alien. Coralie thinks of herself as a monster, because of her deformity, and because of what her father keeps telling her and how he uses her.

Because of these larger themes, I have to give the book more than 3 stars, but I don't think it quite reaches 4. And I think I got used to the paired chapters by the end, because I was pretty riveted the last few chapters. So, while this book didn't quite hit me like The Dovekeepers did, I can certainly recommend it. It is a fine example of good historical fiction.

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