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Friday, January 23, 2015

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Book Review: The Museum of Extraordinary Things

A turn of the century Coney Island Freak show with two headed animals, a giant tortoise, a girl with no arms, sword swallowers, a man covered in hair: such is the setting of Alice Hoffman's macabre historical fiction The Museum of Extraordinary Things.

This highly enjoyable, yet unconventional love story explores the darker side of early 20th Century New York City as well as the darker side of man.

The story follows Coralie a young woman who lives with her father and house keeper. Her father owns the Museum of Extraordinary Things, and Coralie is one of it's main attractions. Born with webbed hands, Coralie has been put on display as the human mermaid and must swim in a tank for hours on end as curious Coney Island visitors press their faces against the glass. She is miserable, lonely, and considers herself a monster. Mainly because her father has made her swim in the Hudson river painted like a sea monster in order to spread the fear of a sea creature and then put it on display in his Museum. The trouble is, her father just isn't sure how to build such a creature, that is until Coralie discovers the body of a dead girl on one of her swims in the Hudson.

The book also follows Eddie Cohen, a Jewish immigrant who came to New York with his father as refugees. After years of working in sweat shops, Eddie grows tired of the low wages, terrible conditions, and his father's seeming acceptance of all of it. At a young age he leaves his father, and never comes back. He works for thugs finding lost people; husbands who have run off from their wives, children who have strayed too far. But one day he stumbles upon a photographer on the banks of the Hudson, and he finds his true passion. Now grown and running a photography business of his own, the last thing Eddie wants is to be reminded of his past. But when a Jewish man from his old neighborhood shows up begging for Eddie to find his missing daughter, Eddie cannot escape it. But through his painful journey, he meets Coralie, and the two wounded souls find solace in each other.

The story of this novel is good in all of it's weirdness. Their situations are unconventional, their meeting is unconventional, and their love is too. But I think what really put this story over the good line and into the great is the historical setting and events that frame and shape it. Those events are key to the story, so I won't spoil anything with specifics. But I will say that 1911 in New York City seems like a horrible, dirty, divided, depressing time, and all of that fits right in and supports this macabre love story.

And speaking of macabre, if you're interested in freak shows and oddities, you may or may not be a little disappointed. This novel does not paint these people as spectacles, but as normal people with abnormal appearances or abilities. It shows their flaws, their strengths, their happiness, and their pain. They are not on parade in this story and the reader gets much closer than just pressing their face against the glass.

This is not a story about beauty only being skin deep. It is a story about how our differences make us beautiful. Our imperfections and the way we handle them is the true measure of beauty. These "freaks" just have a bit more noticeable imperfections than the rest of us. But for that, most of them are even more beautiful.

Title: The Museum of Extraordinary Things

Author:  Alice Hoffman

Genre: Historical Fiction

Recommendation: Yes

Best Reader Audience: Adult Male and Female readers

Final Rating: Four out of Five mugs of hot chocolate
Interested in going behind the curtain and beyond the glass? Use the link below and your purchase will help support the Lone Book Club!

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