Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Museum of Extraordinary Things

In keeping with my desire to read more new releases this year, I just finished listening to Alice Hoffman's The Museum of Extraordinary Things.  As with so much of my reading these days, with The Taste of Sorrow being the glaring exception, I have mixed feelings about this book.

On the one hand, the setting of the book is superb--Brooklyn, Coney Island, Manhattan in the early 1900s combines one of my favorite places with one of my favorite time periods--as is the premise.  The story revolves around a "museum" on Coney Island that purports to display "extraordinary things," mostly people born with deformities that are exploited (e.g., the hairy Wolfman, the armless Butterfly Girl, and the star of the show and daughter of the evil Professor who owns the museum, the Mermaid, Coralie).

Hoffman builds a story around Coralie that involves the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, a rebellious Jewish photographer, Eddie (aka Ezekiel Cohen), a murder mystery, a hermit who lives in a hut on the Hudson, labor rights, and the fire that destroyed Dreamland, one of Coney Island's many amusement parks.  It's actually a very good story, well-plotted, with interesting characters who have interesting, believable stories.

My main problem with the book--and don't get me wrong, I liked it, but didn't love it--lay in the way it was told.  Hoffman really jumped around a lot time-wise.  The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire took place on March 25, 1911 and the Dreamland Fire on May 26, 1911--essentially the major plot takes place between these two events, two months apart, and while it is imperative that the reader get the backstory on the two main characters, Coralie and Eddie, I didn't care for the way Hoffman interspersed backstory into the main story. I found this made the book hard to follow and unnecesssarily disjointed.

There was a lot to like about this book--the yearning for freedom, the discovery of the past, the love and respect for life in all its forms and permutations.  I just don't think Hoffman quite did justice to the story she created and the real events she documented.

Final note--if they ever make a movie of this book, Mark Knopfler's fabulous song, Devil Baby, should really be the theme song.

This book counts in my Historical Fiction Reading Challenge for 2014.


  1. So disappointed to hear that this one didn't work as well as it might have. So much potential!

  2. I've heard mixed reviews on this one, but still willing to try it.

  3. Too bad about the jumping around with time thing. I have read books where too much of that has gone on. I find that just as I am getting interested in narrative thread the story jumps into something else. When the author finally gets back I am less interested,

  4. I'm willing to give this one a chance -- thanks for sharing.