The Museum of Extraordinary Things

20 of 90
The Museum of Extraordinary Things
384 pages; Scribner
Alice Hoffman, author of the 1998 Oprah's Book Club pick Here on Earth and more recently The Dovekeepers, returns with her 24th novel, a richly textured work balancing magical realism with historical fact. Set in New York City just after the turn of the 20th century, The Museum of Extraordinary Things (Scribner) tells the story of Coralie, the only child of the museum's cunning proprietor, who lives above her dad's boardwalk exhibition of oddities and human freaks. Her father will do anything to bring in crowds, even if it means enlisting Coralie, an accomplished swimmer, to pose as a mermaid and perform alongside the Wolfman and the Butterfly Girl. Meanwhile, Russian immigrant Eddie Cohen breaks from his Orthodox Jewish community, becoming a spy for the "Seer of Rivington Street," a self-proclaimed wizard known for tracking down husbands who have deserted their families. After an apprenticeship with a photographer leads Eddie to his true calling, he captures on film the fiery blaze of the Triangle shirtwaist factory and with it inadvertently documents the birth of a labor reform movement.

In Hoffman's spellbinding tale, the New York City of 1911 straddles the past and present: Electricity has begun "snaking through Brooklyn, turning night into day," the woods of upper Manhattan are giving way to sidewalks and streets, and factory owners will stop at nothing to keep prices low and workers marginalized. In a gritty nation on the brink of profound change, there is always still the chance that something miraculous can happen—as when Coralie and Eddie meet and find not just love, but hope.

— Abbe Wright