The Museum of Extraordinary Things – Alice Hoffman

I like Alice Hoffman’s books. I liked Practical Magic, it was sweet (and because I read it years after watching the film, it was nice to find it darker and richer and less kidman-ish). I LOVED the Dovekeepers, it’s one of those books that stays with you. Next up is her The Drowning Season. But the Museum of Extraordinary Things hit me really hard and I didn’t put it down until it was finished.

It’s the story of Cora, who was born with webbed fingers and spends her days swimming in an exhibit tank, pretending to be a mermaid in her father’s glorified freak show. She’s a gentle, empathetic girl who longs for a life she doesn’t understand. It’s also the story of Eddie, who has left his father and his faith and is looking for something to fill the loss he feels. Eddie photographs the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire and finds himself tangled up in a mystery that only he can solve. Cora’s father has the very thing he’s looking for, but nothing leaves the Museum of Extraordinary things without the Professor’s leave, so Eddie and Cora must find a way to escape and somehow free the others who have been caught up in the Professor’s awful machinations.

Nothing about this book is straightforward. There are some twists that are obvious (like Coralie’s parentage) and some I didn’t see coming at all (like Coralie’s parentage). Intriguing, no? Eddie is such a likeable character, I just wanted to pat him on the head and feed him tea and biscuits until he felt better. You really get to see the internal struggle he has regarding his father’s actions in the past and how he responded to them. It’s also lovely to watch as the faith the other characters have in him proves true. Moses Levy is a character only really established through Eddie’s remembrances, yet despite his gruff manner, you can tell Moses loved and cherished his apprentice. Samuel Weiss is so assured that Eddie will find his missing daughter that you can tell Eddie’s estranged father has spoken well of his abilities to Samuel, and often. It’s these little clues that make Eddie’s frustration at his own inability bearable – you can tell in the end, everything will come up roses.

Cora’s character is a little less likeable, but I think it’s because I can’t sympathise as much with her quiet resentment and inaction. By the time she’s accidentally seen Eddie, Cora is full of resentment and defiance towards the Professor, but she does practically nothing about it. Even when she goes into the city to return Eddie’s camera equipment and ends up half naked, she is indignant at the idea that she is no longer a virgin – her goodness and obedience are absolute, even when her father becomes a monster. Compared with Juliet Block or Hannah Weiss, Cora is a wimp. Her brave stand against the fire in the end of the book is nothing more than chance – if she’d been more invested in her own escape, no one would have been near the fire anyway.

The book is really well put together – characters like Abraham Hochman come to the fore in brilliant twists of plot. Hochman I had written off as a charlatan, much as Eddie does, but but the end of the story you start to think he is more than he appears. So too Jacob Van der Beck, whose tragic tale I long to write a novel about (albeit with a slightly happier ending, especially for the wolf). After you have dismissed these characters as unimportant and uninvolved, Hoffman weaves them back in with surprising grace. Nothing is superfluous in this book, every thread is necessary and neatly tied. At 300 pages you should definitely try this (especially if you’ve never read Hoffman before – then move on the The Dovekeepers). The sense of menace and the hope of redemption will keep you reading until the wee hours, while the beauty and joy of the characters will make you smile long after you finish.

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