The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman is a period piece, about a girl with webbed hands raised by her father, owner of a museum of freaks, to become his latest spectacle.
0 out of 10 stars. When I read a novel I look for several things. A plot that takes my breath away. Characters who are as real as the people I know and see everyday. Writing that is easy to read and flows flawlessly. Realistic dialogue that tells you a great deal about the characters. This novel failed on all acounts. The 60+ year old author has been riding the fame of earlier projects for decades. She really should put down her pen and walk away from writing.
The first third of the novel is the setup of a grotesque story. Professor Sardie, who has never told his daughter his real name, runs a freak museum in Brooklyn. His daughter Coralie, black-haired with gray eyes whom he only allows to wear black, must always wear gloves to hide her deformity, webbed fingers. Sardie never sees Coralie during the day. She is raised by the Irish housekeeper, Maureen, whose boyfriend splashed her face with sulfuric acid when she stopped seeing him. Coralie is never permitted inside the museum because Sardie never allows anyone under the age of ten. During cold nights, Sardie takes Coralie swimming in the river until she can swim for five miles in the freezing cold. When she turns ten, she realizes why. He leads her for the first time into the museum and there in the middle of the room is the new exhibit, the Human Mermaid, Coralie. She takes off her shoes and jumps inside. For the next eight years that will be her job, swimming in a tank all day and all night as people pay to see her. She paints blue fish scales on her skin in the morning and attaches a fake tail. Although Sardie claims that Barnum and Bailey are the frauds, it’s also him who is a fraud.
By the time Coralie is 18 she has never had a friend other than Maureen. Her father is unbending and takes her to the morgue to look over the unclaimed dead bodies of women and children, looking for a new exhibit. Her part is pretending that her mother has disappeared and crying. This makes the morgue attendants take pity on them and allow them inside the morgue. Sardie has been using Coralie in this manner for more than a decade and it’s taken its toll. When he can’t find a body that’s deformed enough, he takes Coralie to the whore houses where children are bought and sold. A man comes outside carrying a five year-old girl with no arms or legs. The man offers to sell her to Sardie, but Sardie says no. The man is angry and hits the little girl who whimpers. This is when Sardie tells Coralie that the man is the little girl’s father and the father is well wthin his rights to do anything to his daughter he pleases, including selling her.
Sardie’s next plan is to make Coralie into a harbor monster. He has her swim at night down the river and attract the attention of passersby. Within a few months the Hudson Mystery is the talk of the town. Articles about her appear in every paper. Then one night as she is swimming she is captivated by a handsome young man named Eddie who is fishing with his dog. She follows him and spies on him until his dog comes chasing after her. To her, this is love. A few weeks later on one fateful evening, she runs into a floating girl. She tries to save her and swims her to shore against the freezing cold, but the girl is dead. Her father is merciless about it, seeing only an opportunity to the use the body. He still needs to create some kind of freak exhibit for his waning audience.
There used to be novels with regular stories and regular storytelling on the library shelves. Those have been replaced by gore, blood, sex, and revulsion used to attract readers to authors with sloppy writing. Now the more macabre an author can make their novel, the more people will flock to it. This is an example of a story about a depraved man who abuses his child from the time she is born and throughout her life. She wants to break free and sees in the hero her opportunity which can only have a tragic ending.
0 out of 10 stars. This is one of the most disturbing novels I’ve ever read. There’s no point to it except to depress the reader and tell them of a time when deformed children were used and abused by their parents. 361 pages of this morose curiosity was way too much. Pass on this one.
Now let’s talk about the writing. Alice Hoffman is in her late 60s. Her writing has declined rather than improved over the decades. Her style is to include long-winded narratives that don’t really flow with the rest of the chapter, so she offsets them with little breaks. They still don’t fit. She often goes on for an entire chapter with a thought all represented in italics. There are about eight chapters like this in the novel, representing at least half of the novel. She spends an inordinate amount of time talking about the beauty of New York, Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the small stores and parks there. Unless you live there, none of these names of places will mean anything to you as they are dropped into narrative out of context. To me, this is like watching a movie and having ads for Pepsi and Apple pop out at you every two minutes.
He was followed by a heavyset man who had with him a child no older than six. The man did his best to get the Professor’s attention as he toted the girl in a rope sling, for she had neither arms nor legs.
“Here’s what you’re looking for,” the man shouted. “She’ll be to your liking. You can have her for a fair price.”
The child had begun to wail, but one smack from her caretaker and she hushes quickly enough. She appeared too stunned to cry any more. The Professor shook his head and stalked away. Still, the brutal man called after him, “You said you wanted a monster. She’s right here! Look no further.”
“What will happen to the child?” Coralie asked after they had climbed into the carriage, escaping the stranger’s escalating rage.
“Go on,” the Professor told the liveryman.
… “It’s not our business,” the Professor remarked, sure of himself. “We are here on behalf of science.”
“Perhaps it should be,” Coralie protested. “I could take care of her. It would be no trouble.” The tears that had refused to fall before came freely to her now, though she was quick to wipe them away.
“If you tried to right all the wrongs in the world you’d exhaust yourself in under an hour. This is God’s business.”
“Is it?” Coralie wondered aloud. “Is it not our business to help in God’s work?”
“Our business is to acquire a creature that will draw a crowd, and thereby pay for food and coal and the shoes upon your feet.”
When Coralie strained to see behind them now, the street was empty… “It should be against the law for men to be so cruel,” Coralie pronounced.
“That man is her father.” The Professor turned to his daughter, so that he would not be misunderstood. “And to all the world, he’s well within his rights.”
This is one of the precious few actual passages with dialogue. Most of the novel is long-winded narrative into the world of the macabre.
Reviewed by Jill.