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Originally published Sunday, February 16, 2014 at 6:17 AM

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Alice Hoffman’s novel of freak shows, fires and true love

Alice Hoffman’s new historical novel “The Museum of Extraordinary Things” features a girl, displayed by her father in a freak show, who falls in love with a boy runaway from a stifling home.


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‘The Museum of Extraordinary Things’

by Alice Hoffman

Scribner, 384 pp., $27.99

In her latest novel, “The Museum of Extraordinary Things,” acclaimed author Alice Hoffman (“The Dovekeepers”) combines history, mystery and romance, while pursuing a recurring theme: survival.

The time is the early 1900s, when corruption, worker exploitation, poverty and devastating fires are common. The locale is New York, specifically Coney Island, where a young girl named Coralie is growing up. She is the only child of Professor Sardie, an obsessive, sinister, domineering man who pretends to be a scientist.

He curates the Museum of Extraordinary Things, where all manner of odd curiosities are displayed, such as the skull of a leopard, an overgrown fingernail and an embalmed eight-fingered human hand. Freak shows are also presented to the public.

One such show features Coralie, who was born with webbed fingers and a natural affinity for water. She is forced to enter a tank nightly, wearing an artificial tail and impersonating a mermaid. Although Coralie resents this humiliation, she doesn’t have the courage to stand up to her father.

Coralie’s only support comes from their kindly housekeeper, Maureen, and her only diversion is swimming in the Hudson River. During one swim, she happens to notice a young man on the shore and for a long time afterward she is unable to forget him.

That young man, Ezekiel, is the son of a Russian Jewish immigrant who’s a tailor by profession. Unable to bear the rigors of child labor and a stifling orthodox home, Ezekiel runs away. He changes his name to Eddie, begins to hone his skills in photography and is soon given assignments by newspapers to photograph labor rallies and strikes.

One fateful day, camera in hand, Eddie witnesses the blaze that destroys the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. Many garment workers, mostly women and girls, leap out of the upper stories of the building to their death; some are not accounted for.

Noticing Eddie’s presence as a photographer, the father of a missing young woman approaches him for help in locating his daughter. Over time, it appears that the woman has been murdered and Eddie dedicates himself to solving the case.

Coincidentally, his investigative efforts bring him in contact with Coralie again. Although it is love at first sight, they have no way to spend time together, for the nefarious Professor Sardie stands between them. Will Coralie ever be able to escape her father’s clutches and unite with Eddie? This question haunts the remaining pages of the book.

Fans of Hoffman will not be disappointed. Lush imagery, extensive use of period details, well-drawn, and vivid prose make this a sumptuous read. There’s one glitch, however. The story, which is told alternately from Coralie’s and Eddie’s points of view, employs copious amounts of first-person italicized narration, mostly memories and background detail. Some readers may well find the shifting points of view and long italicized passages distracting. Those who persist, however, will be rewarded with a rich reading experience.

Seattle writer Bharti Kirchner’s latest novel is “Tulip Season: A Mitra Basu Mystery.”



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