The two main characters in Alice Hoffman’s invigorating new novel, The Museum of Extraordinary Things, are drawn together by fate, by circumstance, and by an epic tragedy. That Coralie Sardie and Eddie Cohen don’t actually exchange a single word until the final third of the book is, in this instance, completely irrelevant. The reader knows instinctively that these two fiercely determined people were meant for each other. They just have to survive until the earth-stopping moment when their damaged lives finally fuse together.
Coralie has been brought up by her father, the proprietor of a tourist museum on Coney Island that showcases the odd and misshapen denizens of nature, human and otherwise. Coralie was born with webbed fingers, so she has taken her place alongside the Wolfman, the Butterfly Girl, and the Jungle Boy. She swims around in a tank, billed as the Human Mermaid. As the fortunes of the museum decline, her father insists that she entertain a more select group. Coralie dutifully discards both her costume and her dignity and tries not to notice the leering men on the other side of the glass.
With absolutely no degree of affection, everyone refers to Coralie’s father as The Professor. He is as much a monster as anything that he ever displayed in his museum, something he treasures far more than his child. Coralie’s only refuge is the Hudson River, where she takes long swims in the murky water. She has been spotted by a number of fishermen, giving rise to the story that there is some kind of extraordinary thing living in the river.
Eddie was born Ezekiel Cohen in the Ukraine. He watched as his mother was incinerated in their home during one of the pogroms. Eddie and his father fled Russia, ending up in Brooklyn, where Joseph Cohen found work as a tailor. Neither the occupation nor his father’s strict adherence to Orthodox teachings appealed much to Eddie. The boy fell into the bad company of a Fagin-like man named Abraham Hochman, who employs him to snoop around the neighborhood for potentially lucrative tidbits of information.
Eddie proves to be especially skilled at locating missing persons and Hochman sees a promising and profitable future in his young protege. But Eddie has set his sights on a higher calling. He wants to be a photographer and he uses his considerable persuasive skills to convince Moses Levy, a man whose genius with a camera captures the “soul of a tree” and the “beating heart of a field,” to be his mentor.
After landing a job as a news photographer, Eddie’s first ordeal by fire is, literally, an ordeal by fire. He grabs his camera and hurries to a scene of commotion just off Washington Square. Fire is shooting out of windows on the ninth floor of the Asch Building. Young women, some of them in flames, are jumping. The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire would prove to be one of the deadliest industrial conflagrations in history. The horror at the scene would sear its way into Eddie’s consciousness forever -- and draw him a little closer to Coralie.
Although he has tried to leave his shady past behind him, Eddie’s reputation as a locator of missing persons follows after him. A distraught man pleads with him to find his missing daughter. She worked at the Triangle factory, but none of the survivors recall seeing her that fateful day. She is not among the dead. There were whispers among the girls in the shop that she had a lover.
While swimming in the river, Coralie makes her own grim discovery. The body of a beautiful young woman is floating in the water. When she tells her father to notify authorities, he forbids it. The Professor has other plans, a scheme that might revive the sagging business at the Museum of Extraordinary Things. And Coralie and Eddie are once again drawn closer together.
Ms. Hoffman has woven the many threads that comprise her narrative into a vibrant, pulsating tapestry of life in New York City at the beginning of the twentieth century. Like Doctorow’s Ragtime and, more recently, Dennis Lehane’s The Given Day, the author builds her complex plot around perimeters established by historical fact without distorting or exploiting it. She has done her homework on both the circumstances of the blaze and the public outrage that resulted from the Triangle tragedy and has incorporated the disaster seamlessly into the novel. Other less momentous events are also worked into her portrait of an evolving metropolis, teeming with people, all of them infused with the belief that the great city is their portal to the American Dream.
The images of flames and ashes run throughout the novel: Eddie is haunted by the memory of his mother’s fiery death, the Triangle inferno, the Professor burns items behind the museum so as to leave no incriminating trace of them behind, a climactic conflagration at Dreamland on Coney Island.
But, as destructive a force as fire can be, there is also a cleansing aspect to it. Like the Phoenix, Coralie and Eddie rise above the ashes of their own existence up into a clear sky towards a horizon that promises to be blessedly free from smoke.