Commentary on The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman

Commentary on The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman

I just finished reading The Museum of Extraordinary Things, written by Alice Hoffman.  My decision to purchase the book was based solely on the title; I have an affinity for titles that suggest carnivals and/or oddities may somehow be involved in the story.  I didn't know who the author was, or that she had written twenty-eight other novels and is a New York Times best selling author.  While reading the blurb, I saw the phrase, "Coney Island boardwalk freak show" and I didn't bother reading the rest; I was sold.  Even though I had no idea what I was getting myself into, I couldn't resist, not with a phrase like that anyways.  

The story is two separate narratives that eventually come together and it is very well done.  Overall, I enjoyed reading it, however, this book didn't grab me by the guts the way others have; I did lament finishing it and that is saying something.  The Museum of Extraordinary Things has found it's way onto my shelf of favourites for several reasons: the time period and setting, character development and growth, and the author's writing style.  

I am wildly in love with books that involve carnivals, circuses, sideshows, oddities, and other things of that nature, as long as they take place in a certain time.  For me, the early to mid 1900s is the best time frame for that sort of thing; it feels so alive and new.  Circuses traveled via steam powered locomotives; they seemed to appear and disappear as if by magic.  They set up in one day, stayed for a few days, disassembled, and left just as quickly as they came.  Carnivals had freak shows, girly shows, vaudeville stages, catered to gamblers, (and depending on if it was a traveling carnival or not) amusement rides, and "back alley" tattoo parlours.  I know, I know, I'm totally romanticizing all of it, but that's part of the fun.

The Museum of Extraordinary Things is set in the early 1900s and takes place in New York; more specifically, Coney Island, Brooklyn, and Manhattan.  The first narrative follows Coralie, the daughter of Professor Sardie who owns the museum.  She is groomed from a young age to become a performer alongside the Wolfman, Butterfly Girl, and several others.  The development of her character is gradual, albeit a bit predictable; an obedient daughter who eventually starts to question her father and the world around her.  The second narrative follows Eddie, a Jewish immigrant.  His story is much the same; turns his back on his father and religion.  The predictability of the characters' lives is masked by the experiences they have and the decisions they make.  I think that is part of what makes the book well written; only when I was finished reading, did I realize that they were fairly stereotypical characters.  As far as the rest of the narrative, there is nothing stereotypical about it.  One of my favourite things is how certain historical events, such as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, shapes Eddie's character.  The way Alice Hoffman describes these events is powerful and intense; it's a quiet kind of intensity.  The entire book is written with that same power and intensity.  I often had to set the book down just to absorb the things I had read.

Needless to say, I would definitely recommend this book.

Published by Rey Leigh

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