The Museum of Extraordinary Things, by Alice Hoffman

Published by Scribner, 2014

The Museum of Extraordinary Things, by Alice Hoffman

I am an Alice Hoffman fan, enjoying her depictions of normal characters in strange, magical, yet harshly earthy situations. Hoffman indeed presents the best of both Magic + Realism. My favourite of hers is The Red Garden (2011), of which I’ve bought extra copies to send to friends. This time she dispenses with magic and the novel is a straightforward historical novel set in a Coney Island boardwalk freak show early in the 1900s.

It is partly a romance, part murder mystery, part history of New York from its rural beginnings, part history of the labour movement after the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, part a history of photography, and part history of freak shows, circuses and human curiosities (and their demise). Altogether, there are too many threads and themes, while the main character, a girl named Coralie, failed to convince me. She is held captive by her adoptive father, “the professor”, who exhibits her in his “scientific” cabinet of curiosities.

Although the first “freak show” at Coney Island opened in 1880, the golden age of the village’s side shows began in 1904 when Samuel W. Gumpertz opened Lilliputia, an entire miniature city scaled for its dwarf and midget inhabitants, at Dreamland on Coney Island. After Dreamland burned in 1911, he opened Dreamland Circus Sideshow. Other side shows soon opened, including The World Circus Freak Show, The Steeplechase Circus Big Show, Hubert’s Museum, The Strand Museum, and Wonderland Circus Side Show. Human oddities who worked in circuses and other traveling shows enjoyed the relative stability and permanence of Coney Island.

As usual, Hoffman’s writing style charms the reader, since it is extraordinarily accomplished and based on thorough research. Particularly lovely are her descriptions of the Hudson River where Coralie practices swimming like a mermaid. But, Coralie as the lead character seemed too timorous and uncertain to be a freak show performer. One point of view is that it took more courage for people with unusual physical attributes to fit into normal society at that time, than for them to join freak shows and circuses. There they did not feel victimized, rather, they felt they had the companionship of people who viewed their oddities as talents, rather than disfigurements.

That is one point of view – which I more or less agree with – yet, the plot revolves around Coralie’s fear of her father, her slavish obedience and her extended search for identify and escape. Ultimately, Coralie saves the man she loves by jumping into the very tank in which she was exhibited by the professor. Obviously, she turns out to be tougher than she appeared. On the one hand the small webs between her fingers are her burden – on the other they are her salvation.

The sweeping historical timeline and the multiple grand themes make this book a screenplay waiting to be snatched up. All the same, I would prefer a return to Hoffman’s previous form: lean, spare, elegant, beautiful – and magical. The Museum of Extraordinary Things was nominated on Goodreads Choice Awards 2014 (Historical Fiction.)

About the author

Alice Hoffman was born in New York City on March 16, 1952 and grew up on Long Island. After graduating from high school in 1969, she attended Adelphi University, from which she received a BA, and then received a Mirrellees Fellowship to the Stanford University Creative Writing Center, which she attended in 1973 and 74, receiving an MA in creative writing. She currently lives in Boston. Hoffman’s first novel, Property Of, was written at the age of twenty-one, while she was studying at Stanford, and published shortly thereafter by Farrar Straus and Giroux. She has published a total of twenty-three novels, three books of short fiction, and eight books for children and young adults. Her novel, Here on Earth, an Oprah Book Club choice, was a modern reworking of some of the themes of Emily Bronte’s masterpiece Wuthering Heights. Practical Magic was made into a Warner film starring Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman. Hoffman’s work has been published in more than twenty translations and more than one hundred foreign editions.

Her novels have received mention as notable books of the year by The New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, Library Journal, and People Magazine. She has also worked as a screenwriter and is the author of the original screenplay “Independence Day,” a film starring Kathleen Quinlan and Diane Wiest.

Hoffman’s books for adults are:

  • Property Of (1977)
  • The Drowning Season (1979)
  • Angel Landing (1980)
  • White Horses (1982)
  • Fortune’s Daughter (1985)
  • Illumination Night (1987)
  • At Risk (1988)
  • Seventh Heaven (1990)
  • Turtle Moon (1992)
  • Second Nature (1994)
  • Practical Magic (1995)
  • Here on Earth (1997)
  • Local Girls (1999)
  • The River King (2000)
  • Blue Diary (2001)
  • The Probable Future (2003)
  • Blackbird House (2004)
  • The Ice Queen (2005)
  • Skylight Confessions (2007)
  • The Third Angel (2008)
  • The Story Sisters (2009)
  • The Red Garden (2011)
  • The Dovekeepers (2011
  • The Museum of Extraordinary Things (2014)

Next up for Hoffman is Nightbird, a Middle Reader, due out in March of 2015.

0 comments on “The Museum of Extraordinary Things, by Alice Hoffman

Say something

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s