I read Hoffman’s Seventh Heaven a few months ago and absolutely adored it. I put a few of her books on hold at my library and was happy to get an email pretty shortly after that this one was ready for me. From my previous experience with Hoffman, I kept expecting that magical realism to show up. It was my favorite part of Seventh Heaven, and there is a distinct lack of it in The Museum of Extraordinary Things. I think that, more than probably anything else, soured my opinion of this book.
As the book begins, we learn that Coralie’s father, the Professor, runs the Museum of Extraordinary Things on Coney Island. The Museum houses wonders from across the globe: a large tortoise, tropical birds, a human mermaid, a wolfman, a butterfly girl, and acrobat brothers, among many other exhibits. Professor Sardie is always on the hunt for the latest and greatest wonder that will allow him to compete with the lavish Dreamland, not far from his Museum. Sardie is a strict man, often cruel, and while Coralie has obeyed him her entire life, she longs to get out and experience the world herself.
Meanwhile, a photographer named Eddie Cohen lurks around Manhattan, photographing disasters, criminals, and arrests for the papers. As a child, he and his father worked as tailors with many other Russian Orthodox immigrants. Not content to spend exhausting hours locked in a factory for mere pennies, Eddie soon turned to more questionable means of earning money, discovering at a young age that he had a talent for finding missing people and solving unsolvable crimes. As an adult, Eddie has given up on this profession in exchange for his photography, but is unwillingly drawn back in as a friend of his father’s requests assistance in finding his missing daughter.
You would think that a book set in 1911 New York, amidst corruption, gangsters, prostitution, and “museums” showcasing manufactured monsters might be interesting. And it was, I guess. But the setting just didn’t do it for me. When I read historical fiction, I want it to feel natural, like all these events just happen to occur in the background of our characters’ story. I can’t fault Hoffman’s writing, and I can’t say that I didn’t learn a thing or two of New York’s history while I was reading, but the setting felt haphazardly thrown in. Eddie just happens to end up at the Triangle Shirtwaist fire. The Dreamland fire just happens to start while he’s in the neighborhood. None of it felt genuine. None of it felt quite right.
When it comes to the characters, I was more than a little disappointed. While I felt a connection with Eddie and could understand the motivation for nearly all of his actions, I can’t say that I felt the same about Coralie. While, sure, I felt absolutely awful about everything she’d been through in her life, that’s about all that I felt. I felt more strongly for Eddie’s dog, Mitts, than I did for Coralie. I felt more strongly about many of the Museum’s wonders, who may have only appeared on a few pages, than I did for Coralie. Outside of wanting her to get a happy ending, I was interested in her story only in relation to Eddie’s. (I was not a fan of their romance, but I did enjoy their interactions.) My disinterest in Coralie definitely impacted my reading speed, as I found myself distracted whenever I came to one of her chapters.
Something happened toward the end of this book, though, that made me rethink my previous opinions: it actually got really interesting. While I had been crawling through this book, getting distracted every few pages and leaving to check Facebook or Goodreads or Instagram, suddenly I was flying through the pages and wondering how exactly everything would resolve with only 50 – 40 – 30 – 20 pages remaining. That’s what I remember about Hoffman. That’s what I’m looking for in a book. So, while this book isn’t the greatest thing I’ve ever read, I’m still giving it a solid three stars. There are books that do this sort of setting and this sort of plot better, but this one is still worth a read.
For my 2016 reading challenge, I’m crossing off #10: a New York Times bestseller