Saturday, 26 April 2014

Review: 'The Museum of Extraordinary Things' by Alice Hoffman


I loved the Practical Magic film so when I saw there was an Alice Hoffman novel on Netgalley I knew I had to request it. And although I was attracted by the description, there is so much more to the novel that made me absolutely love it.
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.
I read this novel in a day, and by day I mean five hours. Although this might have been helped by the fact that the novel isn't too long (384 pages), it was mainly due to Hoffman's amazing writing style. She writes with emotion, creating dramatic and sweeping sentences that portray her characters emotions beautifully. This might sound over the top, but I can't help but compare the writing style to one of the major motifs in the novel: the river/water. The writing flows, relentlessly, pulling the reader along on a journey deep under the surface, hardly ever allowing you to come up for a breath. I'm usually not a big fan of a shifting between narrators in novels. Often it leads to the reader not understanding the motivations of any of the characters rather than getting a true insight into all of them. It really worked in this novel though. Hoffman doesn't just shift between Coralie and Eddie but also shifts between their past as explained through inner monologue and the "actual" action of the plot. This means Hoffman is able to both show her characters thoughts but also allows them to be expressed through action rather than spelling all of it out. The reader gets both an idea of where the characters come from and how they go on.

18144053Although 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...


4 Universes!

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.

1 comment:

  1. I really enjoyed this book as well. I read it very quickly and then was disappointed when I finished. :) I found your blog when posting a link to my latest review on Book Blogs and I'm glad I'm visited. I'm now your newest follower! Please come check out my blog and follow me back if you like what you see. http://bookgirlsbooknookblog.blogspot.com/

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