Museum of Extraordinary Things (Hoffman)

The Museum of Extraordinary Things 
Alice Hoffman, 2014
Scribner
384 pp.
ISBN-13: 9781451693577



Summary
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. (From the publisher.)



Author Bio
Birth—March 16, 1952
Where—New York, New York, USA
Education—B.A., Adelphi Univ.; M.A., Stanford Univ.
Currently—lives in Boston, Massachusetts


Born in the 1950s to college-educated parents who divorced when she was young, Alice Hoffman was raised by her single, working mother in a blue-collar Long Island neighborhood. Although she felt like an outsider growing up, she discovered that these feelings of not quite belonging positioned her uniquely to observe people from a distance. Later, she would hone this viewpoint in stories that captured the full intensity of the human experience.

After high school, Hoffman went to work for the Doubleday factory in Garden City. But the eight-hour, supervised workday was not for her, and she quit before lunch on her first day! She enrolled in night school at Adelphi University, graduating in 1971 with a degree in English. She went on to attend Stanford University's Creative Writing Center on a Mirrellees Fellowship. Her mentor at Stanford, the great teacher and novelist Albert Guerard, helped to get her first story published in the literary magazine Fiction. The story attracted the attention of legendary editor Ted Solotaroff, who asked if she had written any longer fiction. She hadn't — but immediately set to work. In 1977, when Hoffman was 25, her first novel, Property Of, was published to great fanfare.

Since that remarkable debut, Hoffman has carved herself a unique niche in American fiction. A favorite with teens as well as adults, she renders life's deepest mysteries immediately understandable in stories suffused with magic realism and a dreamy, fairy-tale sensibility. (In a 1994 article for the New York Times, interviewer Ruth Reichl described the magic in Hoffman's books as a casual, regular occurrence — "...so offhand that even the most skeptical reader can accept it.") Her characters' lives are transformed by uncontrollable forces — love and loss, sorrow and bliss, danger and death.

Hoffman's 1997 novel Here on Earth was selected as an Oprah Book Club pick, but even without Winfrey's powerful endorsement, her books have become huge bestsellers — including three that have been adapted for the movies: Practical Magic (1995), The River King (2000), and her YA fable Aquamarine (2001).

Hoffman is a breast cancer survivor; and like many people who consider themselves blessed with luck, she believes strongly in giving back. For this reason, she donated her advance from her 1999 short story collection Local Girls to help create the Hoffman Breast Center at Mt. Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, MA

Extras
From a 2003 Barnes & Noble interview:

• Hoffman has written a number of children's books, including Fireflies: A Winter's Tale (1999), Horsefly (2000), and Moondog (2004).
Aquamarine was written for Hoffman's best friend, Jo Ann, who dreamed of the freedom of mermaids as she battled brain cancer.
Here on Earth is a modern version of Hoffman's favorite novel, Wuthering Heights.
• Hoffman has been honored with the Massachusetts Book Award for her teen novel Incantation.
When asked what books most influenced her life or career, here's what she said:

Edward Eager's brilliant series of suburban magic: Half Magic, Magic by the Lake, Magic or Not, Knight's Castle, The Time Garden, Seven-Day Magic, The Well Wishers. Anything by Ray Bradbury, Shirley Jackson, J. D. Salinger, Grace Paley. My favorite book: Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights. (Author bio and interview from Barnes & Noble.)



Book Reviews
[A] collection of curiosities, each fascinating in its own right, but haphazardly connected as a whole.... Though [two interconnecting] stories have Hoffman’s trademark magical realism and hold great potential, their connection is tenuous—literally and thematically—and their complexities leave them incompletely explored.
Publishers Weekly


New York, 1911. Coralie Sardie works for her father, the "professor" and impresario of the Museum of Extraordinary Things, a freak show in Coney Island.... Hoffman blends social realism, historical fiction, romance, and mystery in a fast-paced and dramatic novel filled with colorful characters and vivid scenes of life in New York more than a century ago. —Leslie Patterson, Rehoboth, MA
Library Journal



Discussion Questions
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?
(Questions issued by the publisher.)

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