The Museum of Extraordinary Things

( 34 )

Overview

Mesmerizing and illuminating, Alice Hoffman?s The Museum of Extraordinary Things is the story of an electric and impassioned love between two vastly different souls in New York during the volatile first decades of the twentieth century.

Coralie Sardie is the daughter of the sinister impresario behind The Museum of Extraordinary Things, a Coney Island boardwalk freak show that thrills the masses. An exceptional swimmer, Coralie appears as the Mermaid in her father?s ?museum,? ...

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Overview

Mesmerizing and illuminating, Alice Hoffman’s The Museum of Extraordinary Things is the story of an electric and impassioned love between two vastly different souls in New York during the volatile first decades of the twentieth century.

Coralie Sardie is the daughter of the sinister impresario behind The Museum of Extraordinary Things, a Coney Island boardwalk freak show that thrills the masses. An exceptional swimmer, Coralie appears as the Mermaid in her father’s “museum,” alongside performers like the Wolfman, the Butterfly Girl, and a one-hundred-year-old turtle. One night Coralie stumbles upon a striking young man taking pictures of moonlit trees in the woods off the Hudson River.

The dashing photographer is Eddie Cohen, a Russian immigrant who has run away from his father’s Lower East Side Orthodox community and his job as a tailor’s apprentice. When Eddie photographs the devastation on the streets of New York following the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, he becomes embroiled in the suspicious mystery behind a young woman’s disappearance and ignites the heart of Coralie.

With its colorful crowds of bootleggers, heiresses, thugs, and idealists, New York itself becomes a riveting character as Hoffman weaves her trademark magic, romance, and masterful storytelling to unite Coralie and Eddie in a sizzling, tender, and moving story of young love in tumultuous times. The Museum of Extraordinary Things is Alice Hoffman at her most spellbinding.

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  • The Museum of Extraordinary Things
    The Museum of Extraordinary Things  

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
11/18/2013
Like the museum of its title, Hoffman’s (The Dovekeepers) latest novel is a collection of curiosities, each fascinating in its own right, but haphazardly connected as a whole. New York City in 1911 is caught between its future and its past: the last woods are threatened by sidewalks; sweatshops and child labor abuses give rise to a cruel division between rich and poor. Coralie Sardie’s father runs Coney Island’s Museum of Extraordinary Things, a sideshow exhibit of pickled and preserved wonders, as well as living freaks; Coralie’s own webbed hands lead her father to train her as a swimmer, billing her as “the Human Mermaid.” But Professor Sardie’s museum is threatened by the city’s changing tastes, and he becomes increasingly sinister in his control of Coralie and his plans for the museum’s future. In a parallel, hopscotching storyline, Eddie Cohen, a Russian Orthodox Jewish immigrant, abandons his father and his community and becomes a photographer, finding his purpose in the aftermath of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire and the search for one of its victims. Though both stories have Hoffman’s trademark magical realism and hold great potential, their connection is tenuous—literally and thematically—and their complexities leave them incompletely explored. (Feb.)
Toni Morrison
"Beautiful, harrowing, a major contribution to twenty-first century literature."
Amy Bloom
“Alice Hoffman understands and delivers the ordinary and the extraordinary in this contemporary novel of the past. As always, her powerful, elegant prose embraces tremendous passion with constant, clear-eyed compassion.”
Jodi Picoult
"As always, Alice Hoffman amazes me with her ability to use words the way other master artists use watercolors, painting the dreamlike world of a girl who grows up in a hall of wonders only to learn that something as ordinary as love is the greatest marvel of all. Many novels these days are called 'stunning' but this one truly IS: part love story, part mystery, part history, and all beauty."
Gregory Maquire
“In The Museum of Extraordinary Things, Alice Hoffman mounts an arresting display: a New York City tale rich with literary inspiration, history, and urban legend. Readers often talk about being immersed in novels; this is a satisfying swim in tidal waters. Take the plunge.”
The Boston Globe - Jan Stuart
“Hoffman’s book earns its legitimacy through an eye-opening plethora of period detailing, coupled with the author’s overarching outrage at urban workplace abuses….You can’t help but admire the author’s fervor for telling stories and the democratic manner in which she disseminates the love of reading.”
The New York Times Book Review - Katharine Weber
“A lavish tale about strange yet sympathetic people, haunted by the past and living in bizarre circumstances… Imaginative…Once Coralie and Eddie discover each other, their profound, mystical attraction and mutual obsession become forces of their own, driving the story forward.”
People - Andrea Walker
“Spellbinding… Hoffman’s penchant for the magical is on full display in this world filled with rogues, strivers, corrupt politicians, Gilded Age riches and debilitating poverty. The chaos and grandeur of New York City at the time make it a character in its own right, as monstorous and intoxicating as the circus sideshow that traps Coralie and makes her a star.”
USA Today
“Alice Hoffman employs her trademark alchemy of finding the magical amid the ordinary in her mesmerizing new novel.…If you're looking for an enchanting love story rich with history and a sense of place, step right up to The Museum of Extraordinary Things.”
New York Daily News - Sherryl Connelly
“The year 1911 had an apocalyptic feel in New York City as fire devastated the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in Greenwich Village and destroyed the amusement park Dreamland that rose above Coney Island. Manhattan wasn’t yet entirely tamed by concrete and people still believed in the fantastical. Alice Hoffman, whose brand of magic realism really should have a patent pending, makes lovely work of the era in her new city-centric novel, The Museum of Extraordinary Things.”
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch - Amanda St. Amand
“Hoffman masterfully creates two characters of depth and emotion in Eddie and Coralie….[She] does not disappoint .”
Atlanta Journal Constitution - Julie Bookman
“The Museum of Extraordinary Things, like Ragtime, is packed with history and mystery, an introspective and full-bodied fairy tale for adult readers.”
Newsday
“Alice Hoffman's storytelling magic is on abundant display in her new novel….Hoffman expertly weaves the future lovers' monologues with a third-person account moving through the spring of 1911 to create a wonderfully rich narrative tapestry. Her prose is as lyrically beautiful as ever, evoking the teeming complexity of New York ….The action-packed story line sweeps through labor strife, a missing Triangle worker eventually fished from the Hudson, the exposure of her murderer and a bravura plot twist that reveals the truth about Coralie's mother.”
The Seattle Times
“Fans of Hoffman will not be disappointed. Lush imagery, extensive use of period details, well-drawn, and vivid prose make this a sumptuous read…a rich reading experience.”
The Artery, WBUR - Ed Siegel
"Part Ray Bradbury and part Steven Millhauser...the delicate balance between the everyday world and the extraordinary is balanced more in favor of the world we know, though not many writers describe that world as elegantly as Hoffman does....First-rate...Vividly drawn...Hoffman gives us extraordinary things and extraordinary times. And more."
The Savannah Morning News - Zach Powers
“[Hoffman is] a master of craft and a lover of language. Each sentence shows precision and deliberation….The Museum of Extraordinary Things lives up to the ‘extraordinary’ of its title, a work of passion that celebrates a place and an era even while it explores a particularly dark moment in New York’s history.”
Family Circle - Darcy Jacobs
“Classic Hoffman: a bewitching world of time and place (in this case, Coney Island and its boardwalk freak show in the early 1900s) suffused with magical moments, a mysterious disappearance and romance.”
Booklist
“Hoffman breathes fiery life into an enrapturing fairy tale and historical fiction mash-up….Ravishing…Dramatic…Hoffman unveils both horror and magic in this transfixing tale of liberation and love in a metropolis of lies, yearning, and metamorphosis.”
Red Carpet Crash - Ann McDonald
“The Museum of Extraordinary Things is the mesmerizing new novel about the electric and impassioned love between two vastly different souls in New York during the volatile first decades of the twentieth century.”
Booklist (starred review)
“Hoffman breathes fiery life into an enrapturing fairy tale and historical fiction mash-up….Ravishing…Dramatic…Hoffman unveils both horror and magic in this transfixing tale of liberation and love in a metropolis of lies, yearning, and metamorphosis.”
Amy Bloom
“Alice Hoffman understands and delivers the ordinary and the extraordinary in this contemporary novel of the past. As always, her powerful, elegant prose embraces tremendous passion with constant, clear-eyed compassion.”
Kirkus Reviews
2014-01-22
A young woman grows up in her father's eponymous Coney Island museum at the turn of the 20th century in Hoffman's (The Dovekeepers, 2011, etc.) novel. Watched over by her beloved but acid-scarred family housekeeper, motherless Coralie lives a seemingly idyllic early childhood with her intellectual father above the "museum" he runs but doesn't let her visit. Then, on Coralie's 10th birthday, in 1903, her father not only escorts her through the exhibit for the first time, but he also puts her on display as "The Human Mermaid." Born with webbed fingers, Coralie, an expert swimmer, spends her days in a tank wearing her mermaid suit. At first, she loves the work, in what her father staunchly denies is a freak show, and becomes close to other members of the exhibition, particularly the "Wolfman," with whom Coralie's housekeeper falls in love. But as business flags, her father arranges special showings, during which adolescent Coralie must swim naked for invited male audiences. By 1911, her father, a Fagin-like villain who hopes to milk rumored sightings of a sea monster, sends Coralie into New York's waters at odd hours disguised as the monster. On one of her nightly swims, Coralie comes ashore, discovers a young man with a camera at a campfire and is instantly smitten. Eddie Cohen, the son of an Orthodox Jew, has left behind his ethnic and spiritual roots to become a photographer. Motherless like Coralie, Eddie has also been employed in phony magic, in his case, finding missing persons for a fake seer. Their love affair and Coralie's rebellion against her father play out in a changing New York City as seen through Eddie's photographic lens. Hoffman displays an obvious affection for the city, as well as for those society would deem freaks, but readers looking for an evocative, magical take on the immigrant experience would be better served by Helene Wecker's The Golem and Jinni (2013).
Library Journal
01/01/2014
New York, 1911. Coralie Sardie works for her father, the "professor" and impresario of the Museum of Extraordinary Things, a freak show in Coney Island. She performs as a mermaid in a tank but really lives for her long swims in the cold Hudson River. While Coralie's element is water, Eddie Cohen is tormented by fire. He fled a fiery pogrom in his native Russia and now wants to break away from his miserable life on the Lower East Side and become a photographer. Eddie's hatred of rich factory owners increases when he takes photos of the ghastly fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in Greenwich Village. Meanwhile, Professor Sardie grows even more sinister as the crowds desert his "museum" for the new and lavish amusement palaces of Luna Park and Dreamland. Then Coralie and Eddie get caught up in the chaos as Dreamland burns to the ground. VERDICT With a sprinkling of magical realism, Hoffman (Survival Lessons) blends social realism, historical fiction, romance, and mystery in a fast-paced and dramatic novel filled with colorful characters and vivid scenes of life in New York more than a century ago. [See Prepub Alert, 8/13/13.]—Leslie Patterson, Rehoboth, MA
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781451693560
  • Publisher: Scribner
  • Publication date: 2/18/2014
  • Pages: 384
  • Sales rank: 34,757
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Alice Hoffman is the author of thirty works of fiction, including Practical Magic, The Red Garden, the Oprah’s Book Club Selection Here on Earth, The Museum of Extraordinary Things, and the recent blockbuster bestseller The Dovekeepers. She lives in Boston.

Biography

Born in the 1950s to college-educated parents who divorced when she was young, Alice Hoffman was raised by her single, working mother in a blue-collar Long Island neighborhood. Although she felt like an outsider growing up, she discovered that these feelings of not quite belonging positioned her uniquely to observe people from a distance. Later, she would hone this viewpoint in stories that captured the full intensity of the human experience.

After high school, Hoffman went to work for the Doubleday factory in Garden City. But the eight-hour, supervised workday was not for her, and she quit before lunch on her first day! She enrolled in night school at Adelphi University, graduating in 1971 with a degree in English. She went on to attend Stanford University's Creative Writing Center on a Mirrellees Fellowship. Her mentor at Stanford, the great teacher and novelist Albert Guerard, helped to get her first story published in the literary magazine Fiction. The story attracted the attention of legendary editor Ted Solotaroff, who asked if she had written any longer fiction. She hadn't -- but immediately set to work. In 1977, when Hoffman was 25, her first novel, Property Of, was published to great fanfare.

Since that remarkable debut, Hoffman has carved herself a unique niche in American fiction. A favorite with teens as well as adults, she renders life's deepest mysteries immediately understandable in stories suffused with magic realism and a dreamy, fairy-tale sensibility. (In a 1994 article for The New York Times, interviewer Ruth Reichl described the magic in Hoffman's books as a casual, regular occurrence -- "...so offhand that even the most skeptical reader can accept it.") Her characters' lives are transformed by uncontrollable forces -- love and loss, sorrow and bliss, danger and death.

Hoffman's 1997 novel Here on Earth was selected as an Oprah Book Club pick, but even without Winfrey's powerful endorsement, her books have become huge bestsellers -- including three that have been adapted for the movies: Practical Magic (1995), The River King (2000), and her YA fable Aquamarine (2001).

Hoffman is a breast cancer survivor; and like many people who consider themselves blessed with luck, she believes strongly in giving back. For this reason, she donated her advance from her 1999 short story collection Local Girls to help create the Hoffman Breast Center at Mt. Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, MA.

Good To Know

  • Hoffman has written a number of children's books, including Fireflies: A Winter's Tale(1999), Horsefly (2000), and Moondog (2004).

  • Aquamarine was written for Hoffman's best friend, Jo Ann, who dreamed of the freedom of mermaids as she battled brain cancer.

  • Here on Earth is a modern version of Hoffman's favorite novel, Wuthering Heights.

  • Hoffman has been honored with the Massachusetts Book Award for her teen novel Incantation.
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      1. Hometown:
        Boston, Massachusetts
      1. Date of Birth:
        March 16, 1952
      2. Place of Birth:
        New York, New York
      1. Education:
        B.A., Adelphi University, 1973; M.A., Stanford University, 1974
      2. Website:

    Read an Excerpt

    ONE

    the world in a globe

    you would think it would be impossible to find anything new in the world, creatures no man has ever seen before, one-of-a kind oddities in which nature has taken a backseat to the coursing pulse of the fantastical and the marvelous. I can tell you with certainty that such things exist, for beneath the water there are beasts as huge as elephants with hundreds of legs, and in the skies, rocks thrown alit from the heavens burn through the bright air and fall to earth. There are men with such odd characteristics they must hide their faces in order to pass through the streets unmolested, and women who have such peculiar features they live in rooms without mirrors. My father kept me away from such anomalies when I was young, though I lived above the exhibition that he owned in Coney Island, the Museum of Extraordinary Things. Our house was divided into two distinct sections; half we lived in, the other half housed the exhibitions. In this way, my father never had to leave what he loved best in the world. He had added on to the original house, built in 1862, the year the Coney Island and Brooklyn Railroad began the first horse- drawn carriage line to our city. My father created the large hall in which to display the living wonders he employed, all of whom performed unusual acts or were born with curious attributes that made others willing to pay to see them.

    My father was both a scientist and a magician, but he declared that it was in literature wherein we discovered our truest natures. When I was only a child he gave me the poet Whitman to read, along with the plays of Shakespeare. In such great works I found enlightenment and came to understand that everything God creates is a miracle, individually and unto itself. A rose is the pinnacle of beauty, but no more so than the exhibits in my father’s museum, each artfully arranged in a wash of formaldehyde inside a large glass container. The displays my father presented were unique in all the world: the preserved body of a perfectly formed infant without eyes, unborn monkey twins holding hands, a tiny snow-white alligator with enormous jaws. I often sat upon the stairs and strained to catch a glimpse of such marvels through the dark. I believed that each remarkable creature had been touched by God’s hand, and that anything singular was an amazement to humankind, a hymn to our maker.

    When I needed to go through the museum to the small wood-paneled room where my father kept his library, so that he might read to me, he would blindfold me so I wouldn’t be shocked by the shelves of curiosities that brought throngs of customers through the doors, especially in the summertime, when the beaches and the grander parks were filled with crowds from Manhattan, who came by carriage and ferry, day-trip steamship or streetcar. But the blindfold my father used was made of thin muslin, and I could see through the fabric if I kept my eyes wide. There before me were the many treasures my father had collected over the years: the hand with eight fingers, the human skull with horns, the preserved remains of a scarlet-colored long-legged bird called a spoonbill, rocks veined with luminous markings that glowed yellow in the dark, as if stars themselves had been trapped inside stone. I was fascinated by all that was strange: the jaw of an ancient elephant called a mastodon and the shoes of a giant found in the mountains of Switzerland. Though these exhibits made my skin prickle with fear, I felt at home among such things. Yet I knew that a life spent inside a museum is not a life like any other. Sometimes I had dreams in which the jars broke and the floor was awash with a murky green mixture of water and salt and formaldehyde. When I woke from such nightmares, the hem of my nightgown would be soaking wet. It made me wonder how far the waking world was from the world of dreams

    My mother died of influenza when I was only an infant, and although I never knew her, whenever I dreamed of terrible, monstrous creatures and awoke shivering and crying in my bed, I wished I had a mother who loved me. I always hoped my father would sing me to sleep, and treat me as if I were a treasure, as valued as the museum exhibits he often paid huge sums to buy, but he was too busy and preoccupied, and I understood his life’s work was what mattered most. I was a dutiful daughter, at least until I reached a certain age. I was not allowed to play with other children, who would not have understood where I lived or how I’d been raised, nor could I go upon the streets of Brooklyn on my own, where there were men who were waiting to molest innocent girls like me.

    Long ago what the Indians called Narrioch was a deserted land, used in winter for grazing cattle and horses and oxen. The Dutch referred to it as Konijn Eylandt, Rabbit Island, and had little interest in its sandy shores. Now there were those who said Coney Island had become a vile place, much like Sodom, where people thought only of pleasure. Some communities, like Brighton Beach and Manhattan Beach, where the millionaires built their estates, had their own trains with paid conductors to keep out the riffraff. Trains for the masses left from the Brooklyn Bridge Terminal and took little more than half an hour to reach the beachfront communities. The subway was being built, to begin running beneath the East River in 1908, so that more and more throngs would be able to leave the brutal heat of Manhattan in the summertime. The island was a place of contradiction, stretching from the wicked areas where men were alternately entertained and cheated in houses of ill repute and saloons, to the iron pavilions and piers where the great John Philip Sousa had

    brought his orchestra to play beneath the stars in the year I was born. Coney Island was, above all else, a place of dreams, with amusements like no others, rides that defied the rules of gravity, concerts and games of chance, ballrooms with so many electric lights they glowed as if on fire. It was here that there had once been a hotel in the shape of an elephant which proudly stood 162 feet high until it burned to the ground, here the world’s first roller coaster, the Switchback Railway, gave birth to more and more elaborate and wilder rides.

    The great parks were the Steeplechase and Luna Park, whose star attraction, the famous horse King, dove from a high platform into a pool of water. On Surf Avenue was the aptly named Dreamland, which was being built and would soon rise across the street, so that we could see its towers from our garden path. There were hundreds of other attractions along Surf Avenue, up to Ocean Parkway, so many entertainments I didn’t know how people chose. For me the most beautiful constructions were the carousels, with their magical bejeweled carved animals, many created by Jewish craftsmen from the Ukraine. The El Dorado, which was being installed at the foot of Dreamland Park, was a true amazement, three-tiered and teeming with animals of every sort. My favorites were the tigers, so fierce their green eyes sparked with an inner light, and, of course, the horses with their manes flying out behind them, so real I imagined that if I were ever allowed onto one, I might ride away and never return.

    Electricity was everywhere, snaking through Brooklyn, turning night into day. Its power was evident in a showing made by electrocuting a poor elephant named Topsy, who had turned on a cruel, abusive trainer. I was not yet ten when Edison planned to prove that his form of electricity was safe, while declaring that his rival, Westinghouse, had produced something that was a danger to the world. If Westinghouse’s method could kill a pachyderm, what might it do to the common man? I happened to be there on that day, walking home from the market with our housekeeper, Maureen. There was a huge, feverish crowd gathered, all waiting to see the execution, though it was January and the chill was everywhere.

    “Keep walking,” Maureen said, not breaking her stride, pulling me along by my arm. She had on a wool coat and a green felt hat, her most prized possession, bought from a famed milliner on Twenty-third Street in Manhattan. She was clearly disgusted by the bloodthirsty atmosphere. “People will disappoint you with their cruelty every time.”

    I wasn’t so sure Maureen was right, for there was compassion to be found among the crowd as well. I had spied a girl on a bench with her mother. She was staring at poor Topsy and crying. She appeared to be keeping a vigil, a soulful little angel with a fierce expression. I, myself, did not dare to show my fury or indulge in my true emotions. I wished I might have sat beside this other girl, and held her hand, and had her as my friend, but I was forced away from the dreadful scene. In truth, I never had a friend of my own age, though I longed for one.

    All the same, I loved Brooklyn and the magic it contained. The city was my school, for although compulsory education laws had gone into effect in 1894, no one enforced them, and it was easy enough to escape public education. My father, for instance, sent a note to the local school board stating I was disabled, and this was accepted without requirement of any further proof. Coney Island then was my classroom, and it was a wondrous one. The parks were made of papier-mâché, steel, and electricity, and their glow could be seen for miles, as though our city was a fairyland. Another girl in my constrained circumstances might have made a ladder out of strips torn from a quilt, or formed a rope fashioned of her own braided hair so she might let herself out the window and experience the enchantment of the shore. But whenever I had such disobedient thoughts, I would close my eyes and tell myself I was ungrateful. I was convinced that my mother, were she still alive, would be disappointed in me if I failed to do as I was told.

    My father’s museum employed a dozen or more living players during the season. Each summer the acts of wonder performed in the exhibition hall several times a day, in the afternoon and in the evenings, each displaying his or her own rare qualities. I was not allowed to speak to them, though I longed to hear the stories of their lives and learn how they came to be in Brooklyn. I was too young, my father said. Children under the age of ten were not allowed inside the museum, owing to their impressionable natures. My father included me in this delicate group. If one of the wonders was to pass I was to lower my eyes, count to fifty, and pretend that person didn’t exist. They came and went over the years, some returning for more seasons, others vanishing without a word. I never got to know the Siamese twins who were mirror images of each other, their complexions veined with pallor, or the man with a pointed head, who drowsed between his performances, or the woman who grew her hair so long she could step on it. They all left before I could speak my first words. My memories were of glances, for such people were never gruesome to me, they were unique and fascinating, and terribly brave in the ways they revealed their most secret selves.

    Despite my father’s rules, as I grew older I would peer down from my window in the early mornings, when the employees arrived in the summer light, many wearing cloaks despite the mild weather, to ensure they would not be gawked at, perhaps even beaten, on their way to their employment. My father called them wonders, but to the world they were freaks. They hid their features so that there would be no stones flung, no sheriff’s men called in, no children crying out in terror and surprise. In the streets of New York they were considered abominations, and because there were no laws to protect them, they were often ill used. I hoped that on our porch, beneath the shade of the pear tree, they would find some peace.

    My father had come to this country from France. He called himself Professor Sardie, though that was not in fact his name. When I asked what his given name had been, he said it was nobody’s business. We all have secrets, he’d told me often enough, nodding at my gloved hands. I believed my father to be a wise and brilliant man, as I believed Brooklyn to be a place not unlike heaven, where miracles were wrought. The Professor had principles that others might easily call strange, his own personal philosophy of health and well-being. He had been pulled away from magic by science, which he considered far more wondrous than card tricks and sleight of hand. This was why he had become a collector of the rare and unusual, and why he so strictly oversaw the personal details of our lives. Fish was a part of our daily nourishment, for my father believed that we took on the attributes of our diet, and he made certain I ate a meal of fish every day so my constitution might echo the abilities of these creatures. We bathed in ice water, good for the skin and inner organs. My father had a breathing tube constructed so that I could remain soaking underwater in the claw-foot tub, and soon my baths lasted an hour or more. I had only to take a puff of air in order to remain beneath the surface. I felt comfortable in this element, a sort of girlfish, and soon I didn’t feel the cold as others did, becoming more and more accustomed to temperatures that would chill others to the bone.

    In the summer my father and I swam in the sea together each night, braving the waves until November, when the tides became too frigid. Several times we nearly reached Dead Horse Bay, more than five miles away, a far journey for even the most experienced swimmer. We continued an exercise routine all through the winter so that we might increase our breathing capacity, sprinting along the shore. “Superior health calls for superior action,” my father assured me. He believed running would maintain our health and vigor when it was too cold to swim. We trotted along the shore in the evenings, our skins shimmering with sweat, ignoring people in hats and overcoats who laughed at us and shouted out the same half-baked joke over and over again: “What are you running from?” “You”, my father would mutter. “Fools not worth listening to”, he told me.

    Sometimes it would snow, but we would run despite the weather, for our regimen was strict. All the same, on snowy nights I would lag behind so I might appreciate the beauty of the beach. I would reach into the snow-dotted water. The frozen shore made me think of diamonds. I was enchanted by these evenings. The ebb and flow at the shore was bone white, asparkle. My breath came out in a fog and rose into the milky sky. Snow fell on my eyelashes, and all of Brooklyn turned white, a world in a globe. Every snowflake that I caught was a miracle unlike any other.

    I had long black hair that I wore braided, and I possessed a serious and quiet demeanor. I understood my place in the world and was grateful to be in Brooklyn, my home and the city that Whitman himself had loved so well. I was well spoken and looked older than my age. Because of my serious nature, few would guess I was not yet ten. My father preferred that I wear black, even in the summertime. He told me that in the village in France where he’d grown up, all the girls did so. I suppose my mother, long gone, had dressed in this fashion as a young girl, when my father had first fallen in love with her. Perhaps he was reminded of her when I donned a black dress that resembled the one she wore. I was nothing like my mother, however. I’d been told she was a great beauty, with pale honey-colored hair and a calm disposition. I was dark and plain. When I looked at the ugly twisted cactus my father kept in our parlor, I thought I more likely resembled this plant, with its gray ropy stems. My father swore it bloomed once a year with one glorious blossom, but I was always asleep on those occasions, and I didn’t quite believe him.

    Although I was shy, I did have a curious side, even though I had been told a dozen times over that curiosity could be a girl’s ruination. I wondered if I had inherited this single trait from my mother. Our housekeeper, Maureen Higgins, who had all but raised me, had warned me often enough that I should keep my thoughts simple and not ask too many questions or allow my mind to wander. And yet Maureen herself had a dreamy look when she instructed me, which led me to presume that she didn’t follow her own dictates. When Maureen began to allow me to run errands and help with the shopping, I meandered through Brooklyn, as far as Brighton Beach, little over a mile away. I liked to sit by the docks and listen to the fishermen, despite the rough language they used, for they spoke of their travels across the world when I had never even been as far as Manhattan, though it was easy enough to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge or the newer, gleaming Williamsburg Bridge.

    Though I had an inquisitive soul, I was always obedient when it came to the Professor’s rules. My father insisted I wear white cotton gloves in the summer and a creamy kid leather pair when the chill set in. I tolerated this rule and did as I was told, even though the gloves felt scratchy on summer days and in winter chafed and left red marks on my skin. My hands had suffered a deformity at birth, and I understood that my father did not wish me to be thought of with the disdain that greeted the living wonders he employed.

    Our housekeeper was my only connection to the outside world. An Irish woman of no more than thirty, Maureen had once had a boyfriend who had burned her face with sulfuric acid in a fit of jealous rage. I didn’t care that she was marked by scars. Maureen had seen to my upbringing ever since I was an infant. She’d been my only company, and I adored her, even though I knew my father thought her to be uneducated and not worth speaking to about issues of the mind. He preferred her to wear a gray dress and a white apron, a proper maid’s uniform. My father paid Maureen’s rent in a rooming house near the docks, a cheap and unpleasant place, she always said, was not for the likes of me. I never knew where she went after washing up our dinner plates, for she was quick to reach for her coat and slip out the door, and I hadn’t the courage to run after her.

    Maureen was smart and able, despite my father’s opinion, and she often treated me as an equal. I liked to sit on the back steps beside her as we took our lunch together. She fixed lettuce and butter sandwiches to share with me. I thought she was quite beautiful, despite her scars.

    She was the one person other than my father who knew of my deformity, and she concocted a mixture of aloe and mint to rub between my fingers. I was grateful for both her kindness and her matter-of-fact air.“It fixes most things,” she said knowingly of the salve. “Except for my

    face.”

    Unfortunately, the elixir did nothing for me either, yet I grew accustomed to its scent and used it nightly. Maureen smoked cigarettes in the backyard although my father had expressly forbidden her to do so. Only whores had such habits, he said, and besides, he had a tremendous dread of fire, for a single spark could ignite the entire museum and we would lose everything. He stood on the roof with buckets of water during summer storms, keeping a close watch on the movement of the lightning when it split through the sky. His collection was irreplaceable. In the off months, when the museum was shuttered, he covered the glass cases with white linen, as if putting the mummified creatures on display to bed for a long winter’s rest. He was surprisingly gentle at these times. “I’ll sneak you into the exhibits if you want,” Maureen offered every now and then, though she was well aware that children under the age of ten were banned from entrance.

    “I think I’ll wait,” I remarked when Maureen suggested I break my father’s rules and enter the museum. I was not the rebel I later came to be. I was nine and three quarters at the time and hadn’t much longer to wait before I was old enough to gain entrance to the museum. I wore my black dress and buttoned leather boots. My black stockings were made of wool, but I never complained when they itched. If anyone had asked what was the first word I would use to describe myself, I would have immediately answered well-behaved. But of course, few people know their true natures at such a tender age.

    “Waiters wait and doers don’t.” Maureen’s skin was mottled as if she were half in shadow, half in sunlight. At certain hours of the day, noon, for instance, when the sun broke through, she looked illuminated, as if the beauty inside her was rising up through her ravaged complexion. She gazed at me with sympathy. “Afraid your daddy will make you pay if you misbehave?”

    I was, of course. I’d seen my father enraged when a player came to work late or broke one of his rules, smoking cigars in public, for instance, or forming a romantic entanglement with a member of the audience. He’d taken his cane to a fellow from England who called himself the King of the Ducks, for this gentleman had flesh in the shape of wings instead of arms. My father told the King never to return, all because he suspected him of sipping from a flask of whiskey during museum hours. It was unfair, of course, considering how much my father liked his rum.

    I didn’t need to explain my hesitation to our housekeeper.

    “I don’t blame you.” Maureen sighed. Her breath smelled like mint and rosemary, her favorite kitchen seasonings. “He’d probably have you running up and down the beach for a whole night without a bit of rest to punish you. You’d be limping at the end of it, panting for water, and he might not forgive you even then. He’s a serious man, and serious men have serious rules. If you defy them, there will be consequences.”

    “Was your boyfriend serious?” I dared to ask. It was a topic Maureen usually did not speak of.

    “Hell, yes,” she said.

    I loved the way she used the word hell; it came naturally to her, the way it did to the men who worked on the docks loading herring and bluefish.

    “What was his name?”

    “Son of shit,” Maureen said evenly.

    She always made me laugh.

    “Son of a dog’s mother,” she went on, and I laughed again, which egged her on. “Son of Satan.” I loved it when she grinned. “Son of hell.”

    We both stopped laughing then. I understood what she meant. He’d been a bad man. I’d seen such men on Surf Avenue and along the pier. Con artists and thieves, the sort a girl learned to stay away from early on. Coney Island was full of them, and everyone knew the police often looked the other way when paid off by these crooks. A fiver would get you pretty much anything you wanted on the streets of Brooklyn, and there were girls my age who were bought and sold for much less. Some bad fellows looked friendly, others looked like demons. Maureen always told me you couldn’t judge a book by its cover, but if anyone should ever call me into an alleyway, I was to run, no matter what gifts I might be offered. If the need arose, I could kick a fellow in his knees or in his private parts, and that would most likely force such an individual to keep his distance.

    “You know what love is?” Maureen said to me that day. Usually she went about her work and was somewhat tight-lipped regarding the larger issues of life. Now she became more open than usual, perhaps more like the person she’d been before she’d been scarred.

    I swung my legs and shrugged. I didn’t know if I was old enough to discuss such matters. Maureen tenderly ran a hand through my long hair as she dropped her hard veneer.

    “It’s what you least expect.”

    WHEN I turned ten my father called me to him. My birthday was in March, and I never knew what to expect from that month. Sometimes it snowed on my birthday, other times there’d be the green haze of spring. I don’t remember the weather on this particular occasion, during the year of 1903. I was too excited at having my father focus on me, a circumstance that was rare due to the hold his work had over him. Sometimes he labored in the cellar all night long and didn’t get to his bed until dawn. And so it was a special event for him to turn his attentions to me. When I approached him shyly, he told me that in good time every secret must be shared and every miracle called into question. He made a grand event of my entrance into the museum. We went onto the path outside so we might go through the front door, as customers did. My father wore a black coat with tails, very formal, and a top hat he’d brought from France. He had sharp all-seeing blue eyes and white hair and he spoke with an accent. He had set globes of electric lights outside the entranceway to the museum. Sphinx moths floated near, drawn to the bright flares, and I ignored an urge to catch one in my cupped hands. I was wearing my black dress and a strand of pearls my mother had left me. I treasured them, but now my father told me to remove the necklace. He said I should leave off my gloves as well, which surprised me. I didn’t like to look at my hands.

    It was midnight, an hour when the neighborhood was quiet, as it was the off-season. In the summers there were crowds all night long, and great waves of excitement and noise in the air. But those hordes of pleasure seekers would not arrive until the end of May and would continue on until the new Mardi Gras celebration to be held in September, a wild gathering that would become a yearly event where those celebrating lost all control, and the police Strong-arm Squad would have to be called out to beat them back to their senses. The construction in Dreamland was going ahead full steam as the owners built more and more rides and exhibitions that would rival any entertainment palace in the world and be even more impressive than Luna Park. Unlike the other amusement parks, which some of the wealthier residents of the island called vulgar and pandering, this one would be as splendid as any entertainment found in the capitals of Europe, the buildings all starkly white, as if made for the angels. Because it would be west of us on Surf Avenue, my father feared it would put us out of business. At night we could hear the roaring of the lions and tigers in their cages, attractions being trained to be more like dogs or house cats than wild beasts. In this quiet time of the year, seagulls and terns gathered at twilight in huge calling flocks above the park. The steel skeletons of the rides still being constructed were silver in the dark. I imagined they shivered in anticipation of all they would become.

    My father opened the curtains made of heavy plum-colored damask that hung across the entranceway to the Museum of Extraordinary Things. He said I was the evening’s only guest, then bowed and gestured for me to step over the threshold. I went inside for the first time. Though I had managed to spy a few rows of the exhibits from occasionally sneaking a look, the contents of most had been a bit cloudy from my vantage point and I could never distinguish a green viper from a poisonous tree frog. Tonight the glass jars glittered. There was the sweet scent of camphor. I had looked forward to this day for so long, but now I was faint with nerves and could hardly take it all in.

    There was a hired man who often came to care for the living beasts.I’d observed him arriving in a horse-drawn hansom carriage delivering crates of food for the mysterious inhabitants of the museum. A whirl of incredible creatures was before me as I stood there: a dragon lizard who flared his scarlet throat, an enormous tortoise who seemed like a monster of the deep, red-throated hummingbirds that were let out of their cages on leashes made of string. When I looked past this dizzying array, I spied my father’s birthday surprise decorated with blue silk ribbons and garlands of paper stars. It stood in a place of honor: a large tank of water. On the bottom there were shells gathered from all over the world, from the Indian Ocean to the China Sea. I did not need my father to tell me what would be displayed, for there was the sign he’d commissioned an expert craftsman to fashion out of chestnut wood and hand-paint in gold leaf.

    the human mermaid.

    Beneath that title was carved one word alone, my name, Coralie.

    I did not need further instructions. I understood that all of my life had been mere practice for this very moment. Without being asked, I slipped off my shoes.

    I knew how to swim.

    Read More Show Less

    Customer Reviews

    Average Rating 4
    ( 34 )
    Rating Distribution

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    See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 34 Customer Reviews
    • Anonymous

      Posted February 21, 2014

      Alice Hoffman is a beautifully gifted writer. Her imagery crea

      Alice Hoffman is a beautifully gifted writer. Her imagery creates a world of magic and love for her readers. Her beautiful prose shows us how fragile and vulnerable we all are and how strong our need for love is. Her mystical imagination sees magic in the world and enables us to do the same. Her writing is endearing, soulful and true to our hearts. Many of Hoffman's novels are historically placed and her lovely writing makes these places real and believable, and teaches us that some things remain the same: our need for love and understanding. Use a bit of imagination, a love of poetic phrasing, belief in possibility, and you will enjoy this story of flawed and misunderstood characters .
      misunderstood characters. They are representative of of all of us.

      11 out of 11 people found this review helpful.

      Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
    • Posted February 21, 2014

      I have read a lot of Alice Hoffman and like her better as a writ

      I have read a lot of Alice Hoffman and like her better as a writer whose novels are set in the present time and in the local Boston area.(I am from Boston so I think I like the local setting). While I like history and fiction to combine the two is very hard; either the fiction or history is compromised.

      In addition, Alice Hoffman's liking stories that involve magic does not go well together with historic factiods.

      The story of Coralie I found to be totally unrealistic. I did not think a girl that had been raised the way she had been as much of a chance of becoming a normal person without much help.

      The romance of the story is love at first site. I did not see what Eddie and Coralie saw in each other.

      The story of Eddie Cohen breaking away from Orthodox Jewish tradition is better. Also I liked the story about the poor factory workers living in the same city as the rich factory owners was effective.

      However, I did not feel the two story lines of the circus and Eddie the photographer ands immigrant combined well. They belong in two separate novels.

      Received an ARC copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

      4 out of 9 people found this review helpful.

      Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
    • Posted February 19, 2014

      I enjoyed this book, Alice Hoffman is in a category all her own.

      I enjoyed this book, Alice Hoffman is in a category all her own. 

      4 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

      Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
    • Posted April 22, 2014

      Disappointing and lacked the magic of other Alice Hoffman books.

      Disappointing and lacked the magic of other Alice Hoffman books.  This book had a lot of promise and the beginning drew me in. It is set in a very interesting time for New York City and crafted around historic events, which is what I liked about the book.  However, the ending fell flat and I found it predictable. I also didn't get the "love at first site" for Coralie and Edward, nor what they saw in each other.  This felt forced.  

      2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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    • Posted April 21, 2014

      Enchanting read! I love how she weaved the characters' past &

      Enchanting read! I love how she weaved the characters' past & current together through their own narratives- it added great depth and dimension through their own words. This is my third book by Alice Hoffman and I am officially hooked! 

      2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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    • Anonymous

      Posted February 20, 2014

      I also recommend Our Mathematical Universe, Biocentrism and Hect

      I also recommend Our Mathematical Universe, Biocentrism and Hector's Juice!

      2 out of 8 people found this review helpful.

      Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
    • Posted April 22, 2014

      Wonderfully written!  Without giving away too much of the story,

      Wonderfully written! 
      Without giving away too much of the story, this novel divulged a lot of information about life, love, and that there is beauty, 
      even in the darkest moments, of this life. 

      1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

      Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
    • Posted March 29, 2014

      Read this on, you won't regret it.

      What a lovely book. Often novels feature lives of privilege, show casing lives that we would all like to have. This book instead takes us in the lives of real people who are the misfits and outcasts of society, and creates a view of life as it more often is, full of imperfect people with challenges. In the real world people are not neatly organized into those who are good and those who are evil, but more often we find our way in life, one step at a time, making mistakes and learning from them along the way.

      This novel, a it's core, is a story of struggle, of love, and redemption, told in a captivating and moving way. Read this one, you won't regret it.

      1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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    • Anonymous

      Posted March 5, 2014

      Brilliant

      Another wonderful, magical masterpiece from Ms. Hoffman. I was enchanted.

      1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

      Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
    • Anonymous

      Posted June 27, 2014

      Great book by my favorite author

      Not my favorite of hoffman's work, but still great and well worth the read. The characters have stayed with me long after finishing the book, as well as the stories.
      A love story, combined with a search for the truth behind a girl's death, combined with tale after tale of coming to terms with who you are.

      Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
    • Posted May 9, 2014

      Beautifully written

      I love Alice Hoffman's writing. The images she evokes are just fabulous, and the story's setting so interesting... Another beautifully written novel.

      Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
    • Posted April 25, 2014

      A very good read if you like extraordinary things.

      I did enjoy this book very much however, would like to have had a squeal or more information on how the couple fair further into the future. It has some places where you better not have a weak stomach or you are likely to not finish reading this book. It was the kind I had to keep reading to find out what would happen next.

      Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
    • Posted April 11, 2014

      more from this reviewer

      This is one of those books that is really hard to describe in a

      This is one of those books that is really hard to describe in a few brief sentences after you're done. The story revolves around a young woman, Coralie Sardie, and a young man, Ezekiel (Eddie)Cohen in early 1900s New York. The story chronicles their lives, which have been tragic and unusual, and how their paths eventually intersect.

      Coralie's "father" owns the titular Museum of Extraordinary Things, where he displays preserved as well as living natural oddities like the Butterfly Girl and the Wolfman. Whatever he may choose to call it, his museum is a freak show, and he has groomed Coralie all her life to become one of its exhibits. When the novelty of Coralie's living mermaid exhibit wears off, her father finds other performances for her to offer.

      Ezekiel left his own father and life as a tailor as a young man due, in large part, to a huge misunderstanding, and he also left behind is Orthodox Jewish faith to become Eddie the photographer. Eddie has a gift for finding lost people. On one such search for a lost girl, the trail leads right to the Museum of Extraordinary Things.

      This book is not for the faint of heart because it depicts a seemingly unending variety of human degradation. Tragedy runs rampant, including in the depictions of two historical fires: The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire and the Dreamland Fire. You have to ask yourself who the "freak" really is--a "living oddity," or a man who buys and sells and mutilates people for his own profit?

      I definitely felt for Coralie throughout the book and kept hoping that she would one day be free. I found that I could not relate as much to Eddie. In some ways he seemed to be incredibly selfish, not caring about or understanding his father's feelings or what motivated him to take certain actions. I think he redeems himself in the end, though.

      Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
    • Anonymous

      Posted April 3, 2014

      Not worth the time

      I kept reading thinking it must get more interesting or have a point . By page 281 of 350 it just became extremely annoying.

      0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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    • Posted March 22, 2014

      Loved it!

      I have been reading Alice Hoffman books for years and have loved every one with the exception of Local Girls. I'm still trying to get through Here on Earth, as well,but this one is highly imaginative with the history of Brooklyn as a focal point. I'm going to say it was as extraordinary as the museum she created!

      Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
    • Posted March 21, 2014

      Skimmed

      I skim-read this book. Terribly long-winded. I didn't have the patience.

      0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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    • Posted March 21, 2014

      Wonderful!

      This story had such a magical feel to it. I felt drawn into the characters lives immediately.

      Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
    • Posted March 2, 2014

      more from this reviewer

      The story has two strands which will inevitably become entwined.

      The story has two strands which will inevitably become entwined. One strand involves Coralie Sardie whose father owns the Museum of Extraordinary Things on Coney Island, New York. The museum is a mix of people who are deemed as freaks; a man completely covered in hair, a girl by the name of Malia whose arms resembled a butterfly’s wings and jars of formaldehyde containing unborn babies with deformities. Coralie thinks of herself as a freak as she has the abnormality of webbed fingers. Her father also sees his daughter as a freak and on her twelfth birthday he shows her a large tank filled with water in which he wants her to be on display as a mermaid.
      The second strand is about a young man Ezekiel Cohen a young man who with his father escaped the Russian pogroms in the Ukraine. Both live in abject poverty with Ezekiel’s father working in factories while Ezekiel sits under his work table. After an attempted suicide by Ezekiel’s father, Ezekiel loses all respect for his father and leaves, finding work with Abraham Hochman who is called the seer of Rivington Street. Hochman claims to be a mind-reader and interpreter of dreams and through his supposed talent he solves crimes and finds lost children. Ezekiel changes his name to Eddie and eventually finds a talent for photography. 
      “After the day when my father leapt from the dock, as if his life was so worthless he was willing to cast it away, I made a vow to look for pleasure in my own life...nothing made me happy until I’d stood in the locust grove and watched Levy with his camera.”
      After swimming further down the Hudson River than she intended, Coralie espy’s Eddie sitting fixing a meal over a bonfire on the river’s edge. She immediately feels a ‘magnetic pull’ toward Eddie and later in the story Eddie falls in love with her on first sight.
      This fin de siècle novel is a tremendous tale of a New York on the cusp of becoming a modern city. The consolidation of the five boroughs to form what would become the modern day New York, the opening of the subway, the construction of magnificent buildings sat incongruously with the streets being covered with 2500 tons of manure daily from over 200,000 horses that were still being used as transportation. Central Park once a boggy area and populated by squatters now remade into an opulent playground for the rich.
      Mixing factual events with fiction to bring the city to life, Alice Hoffman has created a remarkable account that not only informs but entertainments but never becomes boringly didactic. The author shows the city at its worse and its best. Its worst is the true event of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory where girls as young as twelve worked as seamstresses. The nine storey building catches fire with doors chained and the fire escape melting. Reminiscent of an event that would happen four years after the book was published in 1997, with people jumping to their deaths from the ninth floor window ledges most of them engulfed in flames. 
      Eddie Cohen’s time as a photographer includes time photographing criminals being arrested and the dead bodies of gangsters for tabloid newspapers. With his bribery of local police officers and his photographing of dead criminals it is very reminiscent of the 1940s freelance photographer, Arthur ‘weegee’ Fellig. 
      Coralie’s story is tragic and pathetic in equal amounts. Coralie struggles to extricate herself from her  life as a freak show attraction but cannot find the strength to disobey her overbearing and cruel father who is not above stitching human and animal parts together to ‘create’ a new exhibit for his museum.
      The story of Eddie and Coralie is fascinating and told with great aplomb but the Romantic story arc is ridden with clichés with dialogue lumpen and bordering on the Barbara Cartland and Mills and Boon. 
      “Corlaie kissed him quickly, then whispered that she had given him her heart. It was not possible to live with one’s heart, yet she was smiling when she backed away.”
      “The housekeeper lifted Coralie’s chin so they might look into one another’s eyes. ‘If we had no hurt and no sin to speak of, we’d be angels, and angels can’t love the way men and women do.’”
      One feels that the novel has been written by two different people and I wish that the person who wrote the main story of New York, Eddie and Coralie stories (before they met) had written the whole novel as the Romantic element of the novel is at once bathetic, incongrous and detracts from what could have been a great novel.

      0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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    • Anonymous

      Posted February 23, 2014

      Tap this

      Go to make a sword resulr 1 and make a sword like this


      ••|::::::::::::::::::>

      0 out of 26 people found this review helpful.

      Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
    • Anonymous

      Posted March 21, 2014

      No text was provided for this review.

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