The Muse­um of Extra­or­di­nary Things

  • Review
August 22, 2014

A young woman born with thin­ly webbed hands, who spends her days entertain­ing Coney Island crowds from inside a water tank as a human mer­maid,” and swims the Hud­son Riv­er once it gets dark; a young man born in the Ukraine, who escaped his Jew­ish Ortho­dox upbring­ing and now tra­vers­es the Man­hat­tan land­scape with a cam­era. These are the cen­tral char­ac­ters in Alice Hoffman’s the­atri­cal nov­el, The Muse­um of Extra­or­di­nary Things. It is the ear­ly 1900s, and Coralie Sardie and Eddie Cohen live in what might as well be dif­fer­ent worlds — one in Man­hat­tan, the oth­er in the depths of Brook­lyn. But through a series of acci­dents involv­ing a young woman who dis­ap­peared on the same day as the Tri­an­gle Shirt­waist Fac­to­ry fire, these two find their lives incon­tro­vert­ibly entangled. 

Hoff­man con­structs an account of mys­tery and intrigue, but it is the his­tor­i­cal details that she draws on, over the course of the book, that add tex­ture to what oth­er­wise could have been mere­ly an over-the-top, fan­ci­ful tale. Instead, the read­er is immersed in the char­ac­ters and land­scapes that made up New York City in the ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry and that often come to life in Hoffman’s care­ful, some­times com­mand­ing prose: the Low­er East side tai­lors, the pho­tog­ra­phers who rivaled Stieglitz, the Coney Island ball­rooms and amuse­ment parks, the fac­to­ries. The lit­er­ary allu­sions pep­pered through­out the book also serve to trans­port the read­er, to a cen­tu­ry when works by Poe and Whit­man and the Bron­të sis­ters were still elec­tri­fy­ing­ly recent. 

Hoffman’s lat­est work is heav­i­ly invest­ed in the his­to­ries, both per­son­al and com­mu­nal, that we are born into and the choic­es we make in rela­tion to those his­to­ries. As Eddie, born Ezekiel, reminds him­self, ear­ly in the book: Fate was both what we were giv­en and what we made for our­selves.” For these char­acters, fate is ordi­nary life, reached through extra­or­di­nary chance.

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