REVIEW: The Museum of Extraordinary Things (Alice Hoffman)

Encapsulate the book in one sentence?

Freak shows, murder and romance 1920s New York.

Book Pot or Personal Choice?

Personal choice. The book cover seduced me on Netgalley, and I then bought the paperback.

Did you finish it? Did it work for you?

I did, and hell yes it did. Read in a few days, and have since found myself research Coney Island freakshows and other associated ephemera.

It follows two interconnected plot strands: that of Coralie, the web-fingered daughter of a freakshow owner, whose preternatural swimming abilities sees her cast first as the Hudson Monster, and later a mermaid in the freakshow, and that of Eddie, a Jewish boy ducking his heritage and investigating the murder of a girl found in the river, whose body has been purloined and put on display on the freakshow.

I’m never normally a fan of ‘love at first sight’ narratives, but Coralie’s naivete and sheltered upbringing makes it palatable; and in any case, the backbone of this novel was not its protagonists for me, but it’s accomplished evocation of the time and place. More so than a good many novels in my recent memory, Museum of Extraordinary Things made me feel as if I was right there amongst the grimy glamour of Coney Island carnivals.

What genre would you say it is?

Historical literary romance, with a touch of magic realism about the edges.

What surprises did it hold – if any?

It sounds a little reductive to say none, but no slight is intended; the novel gave me everything I hoped and wanted based on its cover and blurb when I first saw it–and given the disappointment I’ve felt from similar books that promise a touch of magic but only deliver the prosaic (Night Circus, I’m looking at you), that’s quite a nice surprise really.

What scene will stay with you? What character will stay with you?

The standout for me was the Wolfman, who appears in flashbacks and later dots in an out of the narrative. Mistreated as a freak, he appears just as the cracks are beginning to show in the freakshow, hinting at the seedier machinations beneath, and of everyone in the book, he is the purest example of humanity, kind and learned, amongst a cut-throat world. He is inspired to freedom reading of the madwoman in the attic, and its gratifying to return to him later in the novel to see how his life works out.

Have you read more by this author? Did it remind you of anything else?

I have read nothing else by Hoffman, but like learning a new word, since picked up Museum I have encountered her name everywhere. Museum of Extraordinary Things does bear a remarkable similarity to another novel I have read, The Palace of Curiosities by Rosie Garland. Although different settings and times, there is a good deal of overlap: the characters alternating between the female freak taken advantage of at a freakshow and the Jewish male character, both of whom pursue a fleeting connection. Palace is a step more literary than Museum though–more poetic and concerned with atmosphere and character over happenings–whilst Museum’s murder subplot keeps it moving forward with a decisive sense of direction that I appreciated.

Is it available today?

Yes – recently released and available, as they say, in all good bookshops.

Give me a good quote:

“Love like this was consuming. I found that I was jealous of the strangest things–sunlight, streets, curtains, even her clothing, anything that was close to her.”

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