In this, her 29th novel — 29th! — Alice Hoffman’s inventiveness and style show no fatigue. Quite the contrary, in fact. Whatever you might desire from a novel, it’s here: a mermaid, a wolf, a scary hermit, a dead girl made up to look like a river monster, a bird girl, an ex-con good guy and a thoroughly blackhearted villain, not to mention two passionate lovers.
“The Museum of Extraordinary Things” is a cunning weave of realism and fairy tale in the unsentimental pre-Disney narrative style, containing suffering, betrayal and death, as well as pure love, fate and a happy ending. It is also a love letter to New York City circa 1911, when northern Manhattan was still a rural place.
The narrative is shared by two protagonists, alternating in first and third person. Coralie falls in love with Eddie when she glimpses him fishing in the Hudson (also a major character). He mysteriously dreams of a girl who looks like her, and yet Hoffman doesn’t let them meet until the last quarter of the book.
Coralie is the daughter of Professor Sardie, who runs an eponymous museum on Coney Island. There he displays fossils and other “wonders” he has doctored to look like nothing in nature. He has living wonders for show as well, such as conjoined twins, a man who puts his head inside an alligator’s jaw and, notably, a wolf man covered by fur from head to foot. He is a decent, well-read fellow who is kind to Coralie. Her father is a monster who forces her to perform lewd mermaid poses in a fish tank.
Eddie is the son of a tailor who rejects his father’s Jewish identity and his profession, instead becoming a professional photographer specializing in crime scenes. The event that traumatizes him and fuels a tormenting rage against social injustice is the Triangle Shirtwaist fire of 1911. Girls, locked into their sewing room, leapt from the ninth-floor windows. “At first, the falling girls had seemed like birds. Bright cardinals, bone-white doves, swooping blackbirds in velvet-collared coats. But when they hit the cement … [t]heir bodies were broken, dashed to their deaths right before those who stood by helpless.” Eddie sees a fine carriage leaving the scene of carnage and spies the fur collars of the men inside.
Coralie, a timid and dutiful daughter who sees herself as a genuine monster because of the webbing between her fingers, finally works up the courage to escape with the help of the disfigured housekeeper, Maureen, who had fortuitously appeared at the Professor’s door the very day he found a baby in the yard.
As if all this ingenious plotting and several fascinating characters weren’t enough, Eddie becomes a detective, asked to solve the death of Hannah Weiss, one of the garment workers whose body is found by the river, her lips sewn together with blue thread.
Now excuse me while I try to catch up with earlier Hoffman novels, and prepare yourself for an exciting ride that climaxes in a spectacular amusement park fire.
Brigitte Frase is a book critic in Minneapolis.