The Museum of Extraordinary Things

Written by Alice Hoffman
Review by Eileen Charbonneau

The occasion of a new Alice Hoffman novel is always cause for celebration. In her latest, the pivotal setting of New York City in 1911 illuminates a compelling romance between immigrant photographer Eddie Cohen and the mysterious Coralie Sardie, the mermaid in a Coney Island museum.

In a story that both begins and ends in flames, both protagonists are influenced by and resist the pull of their fathers and the tragedies of their past – a Russian pogrom for Eddie and the birth abnormality that makes the confined Coralie her father’s treasure. Eddie practices the art of photography as half science and half magic. His camera captures the beauty of both the Hudson River and the freaks of the museum at a tranquil breakfast. And the visceral roar of grief following the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. After the tragedy tears the city apart, both Eddie and Coralie become embroiled in the mystery behind a young woman’s disappearance before the fire.

In Hoffman’s portrait of its great and tormented beauty, New York shines as a wonder of the world in its savage grace. The story’s tensions are learned straight from Master Dickens: make them laugh, make them cry, make them wait. Mysteries and magical realism are matched by characters (of two- and four-legged and winged variety) that leap off the page. The darkness of The Museum of Extraordinary Things is pierced by ineffable moments of grace. Art saves lives, but only love (always an achievement) redeems them. Alice Hoffman is a national treasure. Highly recommended.