“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.”
This was the second book I started after reading Moon Chosen and perhaps not the best book to pick up as a reintroduction to reading. One of my main issues with reading at this point was an inability to focus for long periods of time. Lengthy paragraphs and wordy narratives tend to lend themselves to headaches and easy exhaustion.
This book? It was even worse. I had to commit to reading four at least ten minutes a day just to get through the chapter length of italicized third person narratives that really didn’t seem necessary. Now, if Coralie had been writing letters to someone or something it would’ve made sense, but this just felt like something the writer wanted to do on a whim to look creative, but not really providing a necessary plot point from the book.
On top of this, a lot of the narrative was world building and plot setting up that rambled on and on and on without end. Hoffman did tie up all of the loose ends nicely, but I jut felt like it could’ve been done with less world building.
However, with all of that said, I did get to the end of the book and didn’t want it to end. I wanted to know what happened to the main characters after the fire and see how they rebuilt their world. Did they move to other towns or rebuild the circus? Did she stop swimming? I didn’t feel l really got to see Coralie’s growth point very clearly at the end and could’ve used a bit more reach beyond that.
The storytelling itself was powerful. If you were meant to hate a character, you did and rarely were characters left a mystery except for maybe one or two that were necessary for their characterization. I was more curious about how the curiosities of the museum lived than the actual main character and would’ve loved more storytelling from their point of view, though it probably would’ve been useless to the actual book and might’ve changed the actual outcome.
Overall, I would give the book a 3 out of 5 stars and would recommend it to someone I know would truly enjoy it. But again, this book is the kind of book that is the kind you either really love or really hate, the only downfall is that it’ll take a couple of chapters to decide which one it is. I really didn’t like the book until the last 2-3 chapters when action really started happening and things started to move forward. So I would say read the book either way and find the parts you like and don’t like.
The history included in the book is pretty intense. We see some of the worst of New York City in these moments and people really seem to have an issue with the graphic content included. But there’s a problem here. As I always say, fiction is supposed to represent the real world. In New York at the time, factory workers faced real, major issues that Hoffman highlights in her books. The circus fire is incredibly detailed, maybe a little too much detail included.
I admittedly bulked at some of the images of the fires on both counts, but this is the conundrum writers face. Real life is not pretty or rainbow and sunshines all the time. Graphic things happen and those things need to be remembered in some cases. For instance the factory fires, these are issues we are still dealing with today and many minority countries are still facing. Cheap labor takes the fall and risks of factory work and the owners walk away with money. Should this be swept under the rug and ignored? Not a chance. Hoffman highlights the brutality of the time and the reality that workers faced.
I’m not sure, again, why people seem to have issues with authors highlighting the truth. Perhaps these people would rather live happily in their lives as if nothing was wrong, but that isn’t what writing is about. Writing forces us to face reality even in science fiction and fantasy. I hope more people can open up to this in the future and learn to thoroughly discuss via fiction what is happening in the world and honest ways we can come together and fix it. We should see this book as a conversation opener, an opportunity to experience more beyond our world and develop a sense of empathy for the world around us.
We, as humans, need to expand. Fiction reading is a great way to do that, especially in the context of historical novels. While not every moment in historical fiction or even non fiction might be accurate, it is our ability to read, analyize and research the truth. Hoffman does her best to do so here, but I’m sure she wasn’t able to hit on everything she wanted. The research part, the understanding part the empathy part, the willingness to do better and be better is left up to us. This book, however low my rating, is a good place to start and I would recommend it in that capacity to those looking to expand into historical fiction literature.