I love this book, but I love just about everything that I've read by Alice Hoffman. She has such a wonderful way of building these magical worlds in which she places her characters. In this book, it's the gritty world of turn-of-the-century Brooklyn. This is a place of hard working immigrant factory workers who grind out an existence in the sweatshops of Manhattan and then spend their bits of free time escaping to the seaside attractions of Brooklyn's Coney Island. What makes it 'otherworldy' is that she places us smack dab in the center of this odd little museum of curiosities. One can practically hear the carnie music from Coney Island in the background, as we move with Coralie through the rooms of her home, watching the odd cast of characters that her father has hired to house the Museum of Extraordinary Things. Her father's odd assortment of natural wonders, geological artifacts, and freakish live specimens feed the public's ghoulish hunger for leering at the deformed and different. For a while, the museum is a success and life for Coralie is comfortable and sheltered.
As Coralie grows older, though, her father's fortunes are slipping lower in status, she learns more and more of his dark side and willingness to compromise her, his own daughter, in order to survive in the business of side-show entertainment. The area along the seashore is being developed and larger, glitzier attractions are being promoted. Coralie's father is faced with finding more extravagant and outlandish acts to draw the public and Coralie becomes fodder for her father's warped imagination. She is pressed into service as 'the living mermaid' in the large water tank at the museum and when that act becomes 'old' is forced to swim about naked to satisfy leering gawkers' prurient urges, safe behind glass, but violated, nonetheless. In rebellion, she comes into her own, growing more emotionally independent and hungry for a true human connection in the world away from the museum and her forced life of exhibition. Her dream life becomes so active and vivid that it contributes to the eerie atmosphere that Hoffman creates around Coralie's bizarre existence.
Running parallel to the life of the girl in the Museum of Extraordinary Things is the story of Ezekial, a young Orthodox Jewish boy, who grows away from his immigrant father. Factory work is just too mind and body-numbing for young Ezekial. He turns his back on his Jewish life and his father and runs the streets of Manhattan. He finds different ways to survive and eke out a living, first acting as the eyes and ears for a well-known Jewish shyster. When Ezekial comes across a photographer along the waterfront in Brooklyn, he becomes so enamored of the camera work being done by the artist that he follows him around until he is allowed to apprentice. Learning the art of photography opens new doors for Ezekial and he becomes a photography stringer for the local papers, providing news photos of all the grittiest of happenings in the city.
The worlds of Coralie and Ezekial spin closer and closer throughout the novel, and one waits for them to collide, as they will be so very good for each other ... but how will they finally meet and come together? Sigh ... it is a challenge not to throw the rest of the day aside to race toward the end of the story, but I am enjoying the magic of the setting so much that I won't do that. Instead, I'll savor this story a couple chapters at a time and pray that these two poor souls will meet and save each other from miserable and lonely lives. For all the grit and seediness in the lives of these two protagonists, there is a conscious search for truth and beauty and love that they both hope for and dream of - and as a reader, I am rooting for them all the way.
Thanks, Alice Hoffman for another wonderful novel!