Tuesday, 22 April 2014

The Museum of Extraordinary Things

Alice Hoffman, most famous for her book Practical Magic (which became a film starring Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman), returns with her latest novel The Museum of Extraordinary Things.  Set in New York City, 1911 it tells the coming together of two young lovers, Coralie and Eddie, as the city of New York goes through some huge changes.

Coralie Sardie, is the only daughter of the the owner of the Museum in the title.  Brought up alone by her father all her life, with the help of housekeeper Maureen, Coralie has lived in a world of wonder until her father makes Coralie part of the exhibition.  In the museum, there are displays such as the World's Heaviest Woman, cojoined twins, the Wolfman who talks like an English gentleman; all wonders and oddities from around the world.  However, a change is coming to the Coney Island venue as a rival business, Dreamland full of fun, frivolity and amusement rides is coming to town and changing the concept of family entertainment.

Eddie Cohen, is a Russian immigrant photographer who is spied upon by Coralie.  Coralie feels a sense of change and boldness in her when she sees Eddie for the first time; could he be her kindred spirit and love of her life?  As Eddie photographs the devastation on the streets of New York following the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, he becomes embroiled in the mystery behind a young woman's disappearance and the dispute between factory owners and labourers.

Hoffman uses the narrative trick of starting each chapter with either Coralie or Eddie looking back at the events in a first person voice and then changing back to a third person voiceover of all the events.  This serves as a basis of the elder characters explaining their actions with the benefit of hindsight, yet we as the reader are not left out of the loop of narrative thrust as we bear witness to two standout fire set pieces which are fittingly evoked in all their brazen glory.

Hoffman renders the two young lovers well giving a voice to them both as they go through changes.  For Coralie, it is the start of her sexual awakening as she meets Eddie for the first time and for Eddie it is his first steps into manhood as he has to overcome those who want to suppress his ambition. 

Whilst an obvious work of fiction by an esteemed novelist, there is enough in her to appeal to the young adult readers of the Twilight series; two star-crossed lovers who must fight to be together; brilliant set pieces, deception and lies abound between Coralie and her father.

All in all, The Museum of Extraordinary Things, is a novel that finds a writer at the top of her game who has written a fictional novel full of imagination and mystery yet set in a historical context evoking a bygone era of New York City starting to become the most famous city in the world with the advent of electricity before the Jazz Age and Great Depression put it firmly on the map.

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