Many prolific authors tell the same story over and over again – they have a formula, and it works, but it gets monotonous. What I love about Alice Hoffman is that each of her novels is a new idea with a new voice, and The Museum of Extraordinary Things is no exception. Stories with a circus/freakshow theme are very on trend right now, but Museum goes beyond the trend. It has a depth of feeling that brings the characters to the forefront, with their freakishness being a minor detail.
Professor Sardie appears to love his daughter Coralie, but he loves fame and fortune more. Although he is exploiting human beings – Coralie among them – for profit, he has truly convinced himself that his museum of natural curiousities is higher class than the others on Coney Island: it is “a true museum, a place of edification” (p. 28). The professor treats Coralie as a disappointment, unless she is playing her role as mermaid, swimming in her tank. Because of this, Coralie repeatedly refers to herself as worthless, hiding her true feelings underwater.
Ezekiel is also a disappointment to his father, but instead of self-recrimination, he responds with rage. He separates himself from his past and recreates himself as Eddie, photographing the world around him and seeing truth only through his camera lens. Eddie’s compulsion to document tragedy is similar to Sardie’s need to collect and display it; however, Eddie’s hobby is much
less sinister. He is there to bear witness. Through his journalism, we see amazing period details of New York in the early twentieth century – the historical facts are rich and wonderful, not dry at all. I felt like I was right there witnessing the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, which begins the chain of events that lead Eddie and Coralie together, as well as foreshadowing their ending.
The plot thickens with Hoffman’s signature magic realism. Eddie and Coralie meet and fall in love, which seems sudden, but it is developed in their dreams of each other – and somehow Hoffman makes this seem perfectly natural and believable. As Coralie begins to separate herself from her father and his museum, she refers to Jane Eyre and the madwoman in the attic, bringing up gothic elements and the theme of wildness vs. captivity. Coralie must envision herself as free before she can escape the professor’s cage.
Meanwhile, Eddie becomes part of a hard-boiled detective story in which he must solve a missing person case before he can rescue his damsel in distress. Somehow all of these elements and themes come together, as we see how deformities and disfigurement can change people – sometimes bringing out the goodness within the most unlikely characters.
As the story accelerates to its climax, the italic sections in which Coralie and Eddie reflect on their pasts also speed up, colliding with the present. Their worlds merge together as they find a way to balance freedom and captivity, fire and water. As usual, Hoffman brings everything together with just enough magic in this extraordinary novel.