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The Museum of Extraordinary Things: A Novel
by Alice Hoffman

Published: 2014-02-18
Hardcover : 384 pages
11 members reading this now
24 clubs reading this now
5 members have read this book
Recommended to book clubs by 8 of 12 members
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 ...
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Introduction

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.

Editorial Review

No editorial review at this time.

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. ... view entire excerpt...

Discussion Questions

Topics & Questions for Discussion

1. The novel is framed by two spectacular fires. Why do you think the author chose to structure the novel this way? What effect does each fire have on the major characters and on the people of Manhattan and Brooklyn?

2. How does Raymond Morris, known as the Wolfman, change Coralie’s perception of her father and their circumscribed world? What parallels does Coralie find between her own life and those of the characters in Jane Eyre?

3. Why does Coralie keep Maureen in the dark about her night swims and her father’s sexual exploitation? Would Maureen have been able to protect Coralie if she had known?

4. Eddie says “the past was what we carried with us, threaded to the future, and we decided whether to keep it close or let it go” (139). Was Eddie able to let his past go? Did you sympathize with his decision to move away from his father?

5. Why does Eddie feel compelled to solve the mystery of Hannah Weiss’s disappearance? What makes him a good “finder”?

6. When Coralie steps into the lion’s cage, the trainer Bonavita tells her “you have a form of bravery inside you” (196). Do you agree? Does Coralie agree? In what instances does she defy her father, and when does she acquiesce to his demands?

7. Consider Coralie’s claim that “curiosity had always been my downfall” (253). Did her curiosity about her father and the outside world worsen her situation or improve it? How naïve is Coralie?

8. What did you make of the living wonders at The Museum of Extraordinary Things? How did their treatment differ at Dreamland? What enables some of the wonders, such as the Butterfly Girl, to achieve a semblance of a normal life?

9. What sort of atmosphere does Alice Hoffman create by using dreams as a recurring motif? How do Coralie’s and Eddie’s dreams expose their inner lives and connect them to the past and future?

10. Professor Sardie and Abraham Hochman both present themselves as things they are not. How did you feel about their deception and self-aggrandizement? Do circumstances make one worse than the other? In what ways did the culture of early-twentieth-century New York City favor the corrupt and those who bent the rules?

11. Where, and to whom, did Eddie look “to find what [he] was missing” (327)? What did Moses Levy, Abraham Hochman, the hermit, and Mr. Weiss each have to teach him?

12. Why did Maureen choose to stay with the Professor and Coralie, in spite of his treatment of her? Of the lessons that Maureen taught Coralie, which were the most important?

13. Consider the role that animals play in the novel. Why does Coralie save the tortoise? What is the symbolism of the trout that Eddie cannot kill? In what other instances do animals reveal something about a character?

14. In thinking of her father, Coralie says “perhaps there is evil in certain people, a streak of meanness that cannot be erased by circumstance or fashioned into something brand new by love” (246). Do you think a person can be innately evil? Are the morally ambiguous actions of other characters, such as Eddie or the liveryman, redeemed?

15. Hoffman’s portrait of New York City is of a rapidly evolving, volatile place. Which historical details stood out most vividly to you? If you’ve spent time in New York, was it hard to imagine the city as it was in the early-twentieth-century? What places are currently undergoing similar transformations or experiencing similar tensions?

Suggested by Members

How does love transform the characters in this novel?
by catzpawz00 (see profile) 08/20/14

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

"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."

– Jan Stuart, The Boston Globe

"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."

– Katharine Weber, The New York Times Book Review

"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."

– Andrea Walker, People

Book Club Recommendations

Member Reviews

Overall rating:
 
 
  "Get past the first half of book!"by lpollinger (see profile) 08/31/17

Coralie is living a life in a museum in Brooklyn during the early 1900's. She was born with webbed fingers. Her father runs the Museum with oddities, both alive and preserved. Eddie is a Rus... (read more)

 
by cookie57 (see profile) 07/06/17

 
by indian (see profile) 11/15/16

 
by RobertaSchussel (see profile) 06/01/16

 
  "Masterfully Written"by Ljwagoner (see profile) 02/26/16

Alice Hoffman weaves a very interesting story from the perspective of the 2 main characters. The plot unfolds with tragedy, crime, mystery, social justice and romance at it's heart. Worth the read!

 
by barbarapitts (see profile) 01/08/16

 
  "Snapshot of NYC history"by mhwinkler (see profile) 12/06/15

I found the historical information of NYC in the early 1900s interesting and well researched. The scenes of garment workers and their working conditions were particularly moving.

 
  "There was so much more to meet the eye in this book, it requires a careful reading to take in all of the symbolism"by thewanderingjew (see profile) 08/22/15

Coralie lived in a house that also housed her father’s museum of wonders. She was not permitted to enter the museum part of the house until she reached a certain age. It contained specimen... (read more)

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