I pretty much wrote off Alice Hoffman after reading The Dovekeepers. Not quite sure why I went ahead with The Museum of Extraordinary Things anyhow, but it turned out to be an extraordinary experience. Between this and Kevin Baker’s wonderful Dreamland, you’d get a pretty good look at New York City history–focus on Coney Island of course–in the early 20th century. The museum in question is a carnival sideshow kind of attraction where oddities such as a monkey fetus with no eyes competed for the viewers attention with siamese twins and a man with a pointed head. Coralee (wonderful name) is raised by her father–founder and owner of the museum–in this environment, and she has an oddity herself–webbed fingers that help make her a terrific swimmer, but which are an object of shame to the extent that she’s always gloved.
Parallel to Coralee’s story is that if Eddie (nee Ezekiel) Cohen, a Ukrainian Jew who escaped the pogroms with his father as a boy, then leaves his father for a life on his own in the big city at the age of ten.
Both Eddie and Coralee are in some ways in opposite circumstances–she overprotected to the point of being her twisted father’s prisoner, he nearly a vagabond. What they have in common is their isolation and loneliness.
I objected in The Dovekeepers o the multiplicity of characters and stories. You didn’t know who to settle in with, especially given enormous spans of time. I thought the scope the book attempted defeated the story. No such problem here. Hoffman carries us back and forth between the two protagonists with admirable skill. She manages to move between first and third person for each of them without ever losing their defining voices. There’s never a moment we arent’ fascinated by Eddie’s accidental connection to what turns out to be a passion and talent for photography. And always we’re rooting for Coralee to break away. And we’re always rooting as well for the two of them to get together. The dramatic tension never lets up.
At the core of it, this is a wonderful love story, but there’s an enormous amount else going on. Fire–both as metaphor and as real destructive and creative force–plays a huge part in both the dramatic and thematic aspects of the novel. The northern reaches of NYC are virtual wilderness at this time, but the concrete and skyscrapers are looming, so the tension between bucolic and urban informs the both the action and the thematic texture.Labor issues and women’s rights play no small part in the story as well.
The more I write, the more amazed I become at how much material Hoffman has managed to pack into this novel without losing the focus on her protagonists and their well-told tale. Ugly and beautiful and mesmerizing. A very fine book indeed.