Coney Island, 1911: Coralie Sardie is the daughter of a self-proclaimed scientist and professor who acts as the impresario of The Museum of Extraordinary Things, a boardwalk freak show offering amazement and entertainment to the masses. An extraordinary swimmer, Coralie appears as the Mermaid alongside performers like the Wolfman, the Butterfly Girl,and a 100 year old turtle, in her father's ""museum"". She swims regularly in New York's Hudson River, and one night stumbles upon a striking young man alone in the woods photographing moon-lit trees. From that moment, Coralie knows her life will never be the same.
The dashing photographer Coralie spies is Eddie Cohen, a Russian immigrant who has run away from his father's Lower East Side Orthodox community. As Eddie photographs the devastation on the streets of New York following the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, he becomes embroiled in the mystery behind a young woman's disappearance and the dispute between factory owners and labourers. In the tumultuous times that characterized life in New York between the world wars, Coralie and Eddie's lives come crashing together in Alice Hoffman's mesmerizing, imaginative, and romantic new novel.
Although the description might not betray it, this novel is much more than a romance. There is something innate to humans that makes them want to look and gawk at what is different and Hoffman uses this as a starting point to explore what makes us human. This novel explores the depths of humanity by contrasting "normal" humans to those presented in freakshows and the Museum of Extraordinary Things. Coralie, despite being different and raised all alone, still displays kindness, love and an understanding of sacrifice, whereas her father seems to lack these qualities despite his learning and his experience in the world. This is set next to the masterfully told background of Eddie and the people around him. By creating a backdrop of the bizarre, Hoffman actually manages to foreground the qualities that make humans so human, if that makes sense. When one strips away out exterior differences, we are all alike and then your character depends on the choices you make. Your background doesn't have to define you, yet it can when you let it. The novel presents these ideas to the reader very subtly. Whereas in some books the moral messages are spelled out and pushed down the readers throats, here they flow smoothly. They form in your mind as you read them, allowing the reader to come to their own conclusion rather than following in the author's footsteps.
This novel is, in my eyes, a supreme example of how historical fiction should be written. Although I know hardly anything about turn of the last century New York, Hoffman clearly had done her research, showing herself to be aware of the Dutch roots of the area and the contemporary developments in technology and science. Eddie's background is also very well researched. Although some of the information at times seemed superfluous, I never skipped over it like I feel forced to in some other historical fiction where the history stands in the way of fiction. Rather, it informed the story in a way that made it appear almost like the background of a photograph or painting. The closer you look, in this case read, the more you find out, but it isn't pushed to the forefront and if you only want to focus on the narrative you can. The only criticism I have for this book is that it is potentially too neatly wrapped up in the end. Although this goes together with the almost fairy tale like atmosphere created by Hoffman's writing style, it doesn't leave quite the impact it could with some of the themes it handles.
I give this novel...
I really enjoyed reading this novel. There was an unexpected depth to this novel that will make the reader think and Hoffman's writing style conjures up images that will stay with the reader for a long time. I recommend it to everyone who enjoys historical fiction and romance with a bit more meat to them than the general book.