Saturday, March 15, 2014

The Museum of Extraordinary Things -- Alice Hoffman

I had decided after reading Alice Hoffman's The Red Garden to let my relationship with her rest but when I read what this one was about I couldn't resist.

I have had a fascination with the times in which "freak shows" were in their heyday, and this novel is set square in those days. Coralie Sardie, the exquisitely beautiful daughter of the owner of  The Museum of Extraordinary Things, is one of those "freaks." She lives with her father in quarters above the museum, and she is tenderly cared for by Maureen, a woman whose face bears the scars of a horrific past. Coralie is forbidden even to see the attractions her father keeps -- some in jars, many as employees -- until she reaches the age of 10. It is then her father begins to use her as an attraction in the museum.

Eddie Cohen turned his back on his father and his Orthodox Jewish faith long ago, but found a hero in Moses Levy, a well-respected photographer, from whom Eddie learns that craft. His path and Coralie's intersect early on, but only in a hazy way.

Before they actually meet, many years pass, during which the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire takes place. Eddie bears witness to that horrible event, and is hired to find a young woman who is supposed to have been at work there that day, but whose body is not identified among the dead.

As Coney Island begins to develop other attractions to which people begin to flock, Coralie's father becomes increasingly desperate to find a freak compelling enough to revive his dying business. It is this that finally pulls the stories of Coralie and Eddie together.

All these things were interesting, and threads of these stories were utterly fascinating, but Ms. Hoffman's propensity to overwrite her attempts at lovely prose (something she used to do effortlessly) became a distraction.

To wit, this passage, referring to the young woman Eddie is hired to find:

"...he was looking for...a young woman with pale hair, the color of snow. 
Snow melted, Eddie knew that much. It disappeared if you tried to hold on to it. "

Huh?  Eddie knew that much? Are we supposed to be surprised that a grown man who has lived his life mostly in New York would know that snow melts?  

Beginning with that passage, Ms. Hoffman littered (in a very literal sense) the rest of the narrative with even more strained turns of phrase, and I really had to claw my way through them to finish the book. Finish it I did, though, because the author had provided under all that overwrought language a pretty compelling story. 

The Museum of Extraordinary Things is not Alice Hoffman's finest work, but it's not her most disappointing work, either. (My vote goes to The Red Garden for that honor.)  

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