There are certain settings I think automatically lead to interesting stories worth exploring. Two of them are early 20th century New York and ‘freak shows.’ Alice Hoffman’s The Museum of Extraordinary Things takes both of these on. Museum is the story of Coralie, a talented swimmer playing mermaid in her father’s museum of unusual people, animals and artifacts, and Eddie, a Russian Jewish immigrant with a serious chip on his shoulder and a talent for photography.
There are many things I disliked about this novel, so let’s start with what I do think worked. The overall story is compelling, or at least it could have been even more so if executed differently. This is essentially a “Romeo & Juliet” tale but with murder, deformities, and corporate negligence all in the mix. Coralie is a sheltered young woman, living in fear of an emotionally abusive and distant father, terrified to exert her own independence, and ashamed of a minor deformity. Eddie (formerly known as Ezekiel) is a sullen young man angry at his father over what ends up being a huge misunderstanding that could have been resolved by a simple confrontation. I grew up and continue to live in a family that hides from confrontation but seriously, I really dislike plot devices that can easily be fixed by talking, and not even that extensively. I think even my family would have laid this one out on the table. This first portion of my review was supposed to list the positives in this book and has slowly turned into a positive simply because of its promise. The good in this novel is for what might have been, not for what it was.
Well, what was so bad about this book? For starters, I loathe the excessive use of italics in books. It’s like reading all in bold or all in caps – it starts to hurt my eyes. Hoffman needs a new editor I think. The framing of the novel is such that we get a chapter of Coralie, first person point of view, all written in italics. Apparently we’re all too stupid to understand within a few pages what we’re reading, so the italics really emphasizes that this is someone’s inner thoughts. Next, we get a third person point of view chapter about what is going on at the time with Coralie, but in normal type. Then there is a first person chapter from Eddie’s point of view. Again, mentioning fleeing the Cossacks and being Jewish wouldn’t have been enough of a clue that we’re in Eddie’s mind. We need italics! These chapters are sometimes 15 pages long. Fifteen pages of italics is ridiculous. Next is a chapter in third person about Eddie. And so on and so forth until the end where the third person chapters sort of blend and cover both of the main characters. At the end there is a letter, about 15-ish pages, all in italics again. I can get behind a letter being italicized, but not after reading hundreds of pages of it already, for no reason. I didn’t really understand the purpose of switching back and forth between 1st and 3rd person for each of the main characters. It almost seemed lazy, like Hoffman couldn’t think of how to convey how characters felt with third person so she threw in some chapters from first to fix that.
Hoffman really lays everything on thick here. I’ve never read any of her work before, so I don’t know if this is just her style or what, but a lot of the inner monologue chapters were really repetitive. I get it, Coralie likes being underwater because it is her only safe place. I get it, Eddie hates rich people and had a non-communicative, judgy father. In one way or another these themes are repeated every single time we are in the characters’ minds. I found the resolution of the novel only mildly satisfying. The villains don’t really get their comeuppance to my satisfaction. Animals are murdered, so trigger warning! There are historical events in this novel as well so I guess it’s something I could have prepared for, but if you are weary of animal violence and child labor abuses, read up on the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory and Dreamland (of Coney Island) fires in 1911. That should prepare you a little. Also? Dogs, as far as I know, couldn’t use a breathing tube underwater. That really bugged me. Any animal experts out there feel free to correct me.
This novel was incredibly disappointing to me. Freak shows and New York City give any story so much potential, and it was just squandered on illogical and meaningless formatting oddities and flowery overwrought language.