I’m continually fascinated by an author’s ability to create a work of historical fiction. I can only imagine the extensive research that must go into the time period alone, not to mention the context and specific details of the characters’ story. I find that I devour the books that drop me into the middle of place and time from the past and immerse me in the world of story. The really good ones do it so well that you don’t have to think to yourself about when certain inventions came about or what other significant historical events may have been happening because all of that becomes woven into to the telling of the story in some way or another until you get a genuine sense of what it was like to live the life of the character. You are walking a mile in their shoes for 400 pages or so…
Book# 26- The Museum of Extraordinary Things, Alice Hoffman
Synopsis: Freak of nature or living wonder? That is what you’ll find behind the doors of Professor Sardie’s Museum of Extraordinary Things in Coney Island, Brooklyn. In 1911, Coralie Sardie is among the living wonders in her father collection on display in the museum. Her webbed fingers, a deformity of birth, and her extensive training and cultivating, find her submerged in a tank of crystal blue water with a mermaid’s tale and an uncanny ability to hold her breath. She is in good company with the butterfly girl, the sword swallower, the wolfman and an ancient tortoise. Her father, the curator of these “wonders” is a strict and sinister man. Intent of making his money above all else, he sends Cora swimming in the Hudson late at night to create the suspicion of a sea monster to draw a bigger crowd. Only she uses these swims as her opportunity for freedom and one night stumbles on a man she cannot forget.
Eddie, a photographer, wasn’t always in that profession. He started out as a tailor like his father, then took up work as a runner for a man who did underground dealings for the local Jewish community. Eddie was good at finding things. So after his father’s friends recognize him taking photos of the great Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, they employ him to find a missing girl. As his path collides with Cora, their journeys intertwine to draw them inexplicably together.
My Impressions: I’ve been a fan of Alice Hoffman since I saw the movie Practical Magic and learned it was based on Hoffman’s book. While much of her writing gets a little dark, it’s her ability to paint the emotion within the words that I so enjoy. This book did not disappoint. The historical topic was fascinating and unique. New York in 1911; all of the world changes happening, the differences in classes, the immigrant workers, the re-development of Coney Island, and the birth of the city as we know it. All of these are described beautifully. The character voices are also very well differentiated. There is a general narration to move the story along, but there is also narration from both Eddie and Cora that gives a rich perspective to their individual stories. There is real life, whimsy and human darkness to weave a story together; with themes of water and fire to create a metaphor for good and bad, oppression and freedom.
Why you should read it: This is such an interesting work of fiction, that tells a story wonderfully entwined with history and actual events. While there is an underlying romance, the real focus is self reflection and what is perceived to be true battling against what is unseen and unknown. This would make a fantastic book club selection!
Read if you liked: Orphan Train (Christina Baker Kline), Blackberry Winter (Sarah Jio), The Night Circus (Erin Morgenstern)
Book #26 in the bag!
“What she was finding also was how one book led to another, doors kept opening wherever she turned and the days weren’t long enough for the reading she wanted to do.” ― Alan Bennett, The Uncommon Reader