The Coney Island Boardwalk is a distinct part of Brooklyn’s history but, before the Cyclone and Wonder Wheel came to be, there existed a different kind of magic: the sideshow of extraordinary curiosities. In a crowd filled with mixed emotions, they stood huddled together with popcorn in hand, watching in awe, horror, and apprehension, and yet, no matter how different, all of them were bewitched.
In Alice Hoffman’s latest novel, The Museum of Extraordinary Things, readers see life once the curtain closes. The work, which is set in New York City at the start of the 1900s, demonstrates a time marked by both development and devastation. With a new century blossoming, two strangers, Coralie Sardie and Ezekiel (Eddie) Cohen, find themselves on divergent paths, only to soon be brought together. As if by fate or magic, Coralie and Eddie are united for a reason: to find a young woman who has all but vanished.
Among the freak show is Coralie, born with webbed hands and a propensity for swimming. As a result, she has spent much of her life as the Human Mermaid in her father, Professor Sardie’s, Museum of Extraordinary Things. Even considering her peculiar skills, Coralie dreams of a different life away from her detached father. On the other side of the curtain is Eddie, a Russian immigrant and tailor’s apprentice who has decided to run away from his very normal life. After years spent within a tight-knit Jewish Orthodox community, Eddie abandons his responsibilities and faith in pursuit of his passion. Through photography, Eddie is able to capture what F. Scott Fitzgerald might have called “the beautiful and damned.”
Through Coralie’s eyes and Eddie’s lens, we can see Coney Island as it is, “a place of dreams, with amusements like no others, rides that defied gravity, concerts and games of chance, ballrooms with so many electric lights they glowed as if on fire.”
Both Coralie and Eddie narrate the novel with aspects of the work appearing in third-person omniscient. While fiction, Hoffman disperses historical information throughout, particularly the development of Coney Island’s boardwalk and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911. Hoffman takes the most minute of details and weaves them throughout the story, demonstrating how the work is both beautifully intricate and mesmerizing. Meanwhile, readers envision the great allure to New York City in its variegated history of splendor and loss but, more importantly, the city’s ability to remain strong when faced with difficulties.
New York City may serve as a backdrop to Hoffman’s exquisite novel, but it also becomes a central character. The city, like a map strewn across their palms, becomes fused with Coralie and Eddie, leaving readers with a story of the ages embedded within our hearts.
[Published: 5 March 2014, The Weekender]