Museum of Extraordinary Things
By Alice Hoffman
384 pages, $27.99
By Emily Simon
NEWS BOOK REVIEWER
Alice Hoffman has a “Practical Magic” problem.
Her name (if you recognize it) “conjures up” images that seem to symbolize the entire body of her work: beautiful women – say, Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman - dressed like Stevie Nicks, standing in shadowed gardens, bathed in moonlight, up to something.
These women are possessed of romantic yearnings and unusual powers. They have wounds and secrets. They are engaged in overcoming the bleak realities of their lives by tapping into forces greater than those found on earth. Symbols abound: doves, rivers, very old trees … the truth is patiently revealed by the ancient contours of nature. Mother Earth knows your sorrow, and a white knight – damaged, but brave and true – is on his way to rescue you.
Because Hoffman has been convulsively prolific (“The Museum of Extraordinary Things” is her 29th novel) the above is not necessarily an inaccurate characterization of her oeuvre. Hoffman has themes, she has a style, and her touch is not light. As she has gathered steam, her novels are increasingly neither spare nor elegant. A reader can never congratulate herself for “getting” what Hoffman is communicating: She’s a powerful writer, and her aim is true. Take one step out into Hoffman’s atmosphere, and you’ll be drenched by it within seconds.
But because Hoffman constitutes a giant, walking, typing target, she’s also relentlessly dismissed and patronized by whoever currently constitutes the literary elite. “Museum” and Hoffman’s prior offering, “The Dovekeepers,” use the conventions of historical fiction to add heft, and reveal that Hoffman is knocking at the doors of literary respectability. Unfortunately, this novel won’t be the crowbar that opens them any wider.
“The Dovekeepers” was called “a major contribution to twenty-first century literature” by Toni Morrison (who is herself generally acknowledged as a major contributor to 20th century literature.) Yet in its first paragraph, the New York Times dismissed it as “histrionic,” a word loaded with ladyhood if ever there was one. So adding a little reality to her magic will clearly not be enough to earn Hoffman any new admirers. The New York Times will review her, but those reviews will remain alike: Women will be assigned the task of sniping at Hoffman’s sentences, as if her novels were wobbly stories shyly submitted to a community college creative writing class.
“The Museum of Extraordinary Things” again sets Hoffman’s story within shared history. The place is Coney Island, the time is 1911, and the scene is so evocative as to border on the absurd. The imagery assaults you: from page one we are in a world of barkers, magicians, wonders … and darkness. Men with waxed mustaches pull pocket watches from their velvet vests, then step over stinking puddles of sewage as rats skitter away beneath their feet.
Something creaky is about to crumble atop you, something sinister about to lunge from the shadows, something perverted will momentarily reveal itself to you in all its naked, stark reality.
Within this world, Hoffman places Coralie, an unusual girl being cared for by a dubiously benevolent “father” who runs the titular museum. His decorously named “museum” might otherwise be called a “freak show,” as it is populated by wolfmen, alligators, dwarves and “Butterfly Girls” whose abysmal servitude is excused by Coralie’s father as payment for the debt they owe him; it was he who rescued them from the perils of the shadows.
As one might guess, as the story progresses it’s the “freaks” who display the greatest humanity, while the “normal” audiences distort into perversion. Hoffman does not send this message subtly. She does not risk that the reader will miss the point. Of the Wolfman (bearer of fur, quoter of Whitman) Coralie says:
“It was when they looked into his eyes and saw how human he was that he terrified them.”
So one might take some points off for heavy-handedness. And yet, the emotional weight Hoffman packs into these punches is not disproportionate to her clear need for this truth to penetrate. Hoffman is a consistent champion of the underdog, who shouts uncomfortable truths from the rooftops in an unmodulated voice. Her stories are of those who survive abuse, loss, and neglect. Her poetry is in revealing how these devastations have mangled her heroes, while granting them beauty to be seen through the right eyes. She introduces us to creatures out of fables, and then actually puts in the effort required to humanize them from a place of compassion, rather than condescension.
Symbolically, “Museum” is all about fire and water. Hoffman utilizes two famous 1911 New York City fires to drive the story (at the Triangle shirtwaist factory and at Coney Island’s Dreamland) and as Coralie grows she is “half girl, half fish” – supernaturally cold-tolerant and trained to stay cocooned beneath the surface indefinitely on a single breath. She is also – as is eventually revealed – possessed of a physical difference (webbed fingers) that likely gave her father the initial idea for her training as one of his “exhibits.” Coralie swims the Hudson River at night and ignites the city’s imagination; she becomes the mermaid they wish was real.
Coralie’s Prince Charming is Eddie, a wounded man with a tragic past and a troubled father, whose perseverance, sense of wonder and artistic gift (as a photographer) raise him to the level of heroism. Eddie and Coralie come together over a dead body, Coralie’s father is revealed as even more villainous than suspected, and the salvation tale rockets forward from there.
Hoffman’s voice has, for almost 40 years, remained wounded, dark and bleak. She’s used magic as an ongoing metaphor for unexpected rescue by superhuman forces, employed in the eleventh hour, when it has become certain that worldly justice or healing is unlikely to occur.
If she has an ongoing theme, it isn’t magic, it’s this: Life hurts and it’s unfair. You’ll be abused and betrayed. So now what?
To her readers, this theme resonates with the force of a religion, and Hoffman is forever honing her delivery. But there will be never be any intellectual consequence to dismissing her writing as too emotional, too silly, too female, too bloated. Too focused on magic and romance. Too reductive: men are menacing, or they are princes. A nice Jewish boy, with troubles of his own, can save you. She’s just “Harry Potter” for adult women.
Yet Hoffman shows no signs of stopping, taking regular aim at her readers by telling them truths of their ordinary lives set in extraordinary circumstances. Like a fairy tale, “The Museum of Extraordinary Things” is a story of painfully real events that provoke giant emotions – emotions that spill over into reality so powerfully that they alter perception. One after another, Hoffman’s heroines persevere, only to gaze at crumbling edifices through air warped by their own self-created heat. The question with Hoffman, as always, becomes one of whether this view distorts the truth or clarifies it.
Hoffman isn’t going anywhere, and she’s honing her craft with each passing year. It’s unlikely that she’ll ever abandon magic, but it could be telling that at the end of this one, Dreamland burns; artifice is scorched away, and a new life – set firmly in our shared reality – can begin.
Emily Simon is a freelance writer from Buffalo now living in California.