The Museum of Extraordinary Things
is a 2014 historical fiction novel by Alice Hoffman. It centers on a young girl who performs as a mermaid in her huckster father’s Coney Island freak show. She becomes entangled with a young man and involved in the suspicious disappearance of another young girl. Hoffman is the author of more than 30 novels, including Practical Magic
and The Dovekeepers
. Her body of work is known for its strong feminist themes and aspects of magical realism
The novel opens in New York in the early 20th century. Coralie Sardie is a young girl raised by her father, the owner and proprietor of the Museum of Extraordinary Things, a sideshow on Coney Island. Coralie’s mother has died tragically. Her father, known as the Professor, has strange ideas about how to raise a child. He insists that during the summer, she swim in the sea every night. In the winter, he has her take ice baths. She is raised both by her father and Maureen, their disfigured housekeeper. Coralie is kept innocent from her father’s sideshow exhibits when she is young; he forbids her to enter the museum next to their home until she is 10 years old. He says he is afraid his specimens and performers will be too frightening for her.
When Coralie turns 10, the truth is revealed: she is to see the inside of the museum, and it will be as one of the performers. The Professor tells her she will be the “Human Mermaid” for her swimming abilities and the webbed skin between her fingers. She continues to swim every night—soon she can swim 5 miles in open waters—and follows a strict diet of fish to appease her father, who seems to believe the saying “you are what you eat.” Coralie becomes familiar with her father’s other “Living Wonders,” including conjoined twins, a Wolf Man, and a 100-year-old tortoise.
Coralie, sheltered and shaped by her father, sometimes searches her throat for gills, and experiences self-loathing when she fails to find them. For her performances, her hands are dyed blue; at all other times, the Professor makes her wear gloves to hide her webbed hands. When she becomes older, he begins to use her in private shows held after-hours, forcing her to perform a more “adult” show for leering onlookers.
Then, in 1911, he plans to rejuvenate his show with a new scheme: he forces the now 18-year-old Coralie to swim at night in the Hudson, where she can be spotted by passersby. Sure enough, her nightly swims spark rumors of a mysterious sea creature in the river. Those rumors turn into news headlines, and the Professor intends to capitalize on them. But one night, the river’s current gets the better of Coralie and she is swept off-course. When she finds herself again, she doesn’t know where she is. And when she pulls herself onto dry land, she encounters a young man. Though the two don’t speak, they fall in love at first sight.
The young man is Eddie Cohen, a former Orthodox Jew who has abandoned his family and his religion. He once lived with his father, but his belief that his father attempted suicide after losing his job caused a rift in their relationship. Now, he is trying to make it on his own as a press photographer. His job lands him on the scene at the terrible Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, documenting the tragedy of the trapped workers left with no way to escape the smoke and flames.
After the fire, a man named Samuel Weiss approaches Eddie. Samuel’s daughter, Hannah, worked in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, but no trace of her body or her belongings has been found. Samuel wonders if Eddie might have seen or documented any sign of her, and asks for Eddie’s help in finding Hannah.
Meanwhile, on one of Coralie’s swims in the river, she finds a dead woman’s body in the water. It is Hannah, whose lips have been sewn shut with blue thread. Coralie tells her father about the discovery. He is thrilled, saying they must take the body back to the museum, where he can turn it into a sea monster for the museum.
Eddie tries to investigate Hannah’s disappearance. He speaks to a hermit living near the banks of the River who says he saw the body being transported away. This account leads him to the museum, where he encounters Coralie a second time. The two smuggle Hannah’s body out of the museum to return it to Samuel. But Coralie’s father discovers what she has done and locks her in the basement as revenge.
Soon, Eddie unravels the mystery of Hannah’s murder. She was a labor organizer, advocating for workers’ rights. She drew the ire of Harry Block, a lawyer for the factory’s owner, who ordered his employee, Frank Herbert, to frighten her out of her activism. This attempt goes awry, according to Block, and Hannah ends up dead. Herbert tosses her body in the Hudson to dispose of her.
Eddie also discovers the truth about his father along the way: that his father never tried to kill himself, but was pushed in attempted murder for his pro-union views. In fact, Eddie’s father has kept track of his son all this time, loving him from afar. Eddie reaches out to his father and the two re-establish their ties.
Another Coney Island attraction, Dreamland, catches fire. The flames spread towards the Museum of Extraordinary Things. The Professor, attempting to put out the flames on the roof, dies in the fire. Eddie turns up to rescue Coralie from the basement, and the two escape the flames by hiding in the water tank where Coralie performed as the Human Mermaid. When the fire is over, the two leave Coney Island and get married. At the end, Coralie writes a letter to the housekeeper Maureen, telling her what has happened. It is hinted that Maureen may be Coralie’s biological mother, that the Professor was not her father, and the stories he told her were lies.The Museum of Extraordinary Things
was well-received. The New York Times
called it a “big, entertaining tale,” though the review noted it contains occasional anachronisms. USA Today
referred to the novel as an “enchanting love story.” The book became a bestseller and was nominated for a Goodreads Choice Award.