Just finished Alice Hoffman’s The Museum of Extraordinary Things. Full disclosure up front: I’m a fan of her work and have followed her writing for years, gone to hear her speak when possible, and have been influenced by her style in my own writing. Now to the book: It is a simple story of a boy and girl who fall in love against the backdrop of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory disaster in 1911 New York City. The boy is a young man who has made a living finding people who don’t want to be found–for a price, and the girl’s father displays her in a tank of water, painted blue and dressed like a mermaid, in his museum to make money. Wrap these characters in the world of New York’s Dreamland–a fantastic amusement park–and surround them by “living wonders”–the freaks who work in the museum, and you get the makings of a story perhaps only Hoffman could have written. It starts with her delicious prose describing individually the lives of the girl, Coralie Sardie, growing up isolated in this strange museum, and the boy, Eddie Cohen, alienated from his deeply religious father and Jewish roots, who wonders the streets of New York capturing images on film. These two characters are like electrical currents who eventually cross paths. When they do (and not until approximately 200 pages into the work), this reader mentally sat up and took notice. When their lives cross, it is in conjunction with a body found by the edge of the river, and there’s nothing that gets the mystery reader’s heart racing more than a mysterious dead body. Now, here I must point out that if Alice Hoffman were the type of writer who followed the pack of “commercially successful” writers, she would have opened the story with the scene by the river and the discovery of the body–boom–right on the first pages to hook the reader. Not so Ms Hoffman who can still captivate with her prose and descriptions, her character development and her style. Just flipping through the pages, a reader is struck by the long blocks of unbroken text. It looks more like a classic than a contemporary novel. More often these days each chapter is short, the sentences are rarely longer than two lines, and the prose is broken up by dialog quite often. Hoffman also weaves themes through the work which must be set up and carefully revealed. In Museum, she artfully returns to the leitmotif of fish/mermaids and water throughout the work, interposed with the idea of the captive wife in Jane Eyre and the living embodiment of a prisoner in the character of the wolfman, Mr. Morris, and Coralie herself. And lastly, a lost locket and a stolen watch switch positions, playing at the roles of the lost and the found in their human counter-parts. If I had to find fault with the novel I would (lightly) criticize the character of the coachman who, at times, came off as far too philosophical and educated for his circumstances and almost seemed to be a thinly-veiled mouthpiece for Hoffman herself. Also, I found that the ending seemed rushed, things fell into place a bit too conveniently, but all in all in a satisfying way. In the end, I have to conclude that we need more–much more–of Hoffman’s kind of writing.
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Decided to read “Help for the Haunted” by John Searles primarily based on the recommendation of another author whose works I enjoy, Alice Hoffman. The story centers around the memory of a young girl, Sylvie Mason, whose parents were killed one snowy night in a church, and she is the only witness. The problem is, she is not sure what she saw. The story is complicated further by the fact that her parents were people who made their living by expelling demons from the haunted, by helping people who had no one else to turn to in a desperate situation. The story is further complicated by Sylvie’s troubled sister, Rose, who may be implicated in the parents’ murder. The story weaves through time, telling about Sylivie’s anxiety over her doubts as to what she saw that night in the church, and the 36-hour period she has before giving her final deposition. It goes back to the past, giving us the background on this strange family whose parents make their living giving lectures on the supernatural and expelling demons from the troubled souls who seek them out. It is a story of belief: believing in faith, in one’s parents, in what you have been taught, and it is a story of uncovering truth, no matter how uncomfortable. The author uses a variety of literary devices to tell the story, most of which is in the first person recollection of the young main character. He also uses some unusual conventions such as the writings in a journal, the transcripts from an investigation, the writings in a biography. The tale, weaving through the years prior to and after the killings, provides enormous suspense and an eerie atmosphere surrounding this strange family of demonologists. Eventually, however, the story comes to a climax when Sylvie starts to piece together the background of events leading up to the murder, and uncovers long buried family secrets. I thought the writing was top drawer until the end. Sadly, this creepy and intriguing story totally falls apart at the end. Not to spoil it, but the characters, including the young heroine, start talking totally out of character like old people, the final climactic scene is unbelievable (in that it does not make sense, not that it is fantastic), and it all feels disappointing and silly after building up so much promise. Too bad. I was impressed with the fact that the author, a young man, could write in the voice of a young girl so well, but in the final scenes she totally turns into a two-dimensional cartoon. A great book for the first 7/8th of it, and still looking forward to this writer’s next work.
Alice Hoffman has always been a favorite writer of mine. Her prose is a delicious combination of stunningly visual scenes from nature against sometimes shattering personal experiences. Magical realism is woven through the tapestry of all her stories, and The Third Angel carries on this tradition. The tale in this case centers around three different women who have fallen in love with not only the wrong man, but a man so terribly wrong as to send their lives into a headlong tailspin, and take a few family members with them. First, there is Madeleine Heller, who finds herself freakishly attracted to his sister’s fiance, then there is Frieda Lewis, who throws herself at a drug-attled rock star wanna-be, and lastly Bryn Evans, headed to her wedding, while at the same time already married to another man. What is curious and genius about the book is in the telling: the story moves backwards. We meet the first star-crossed lovers in London at an run-down hotel, and learn about a ghost haunting one of the upstairs rooms. As that story winds down, we meet the mother of a character, who as a girl also worked in the same hotel, so we move backwards in time to learn more, until we finally come upon the central character of the whole novel, the twelve-year-old named Lucy green, who blames herself for the tragic event that happens at the hotel, spurred the hauntings, and launches her on a decades long search for the Third Angel–not the angel of death, or the angel of life, but the angel on earth who can renew her faith. Overall, I enjoyed the book because of Hoffman’s lyrical writing, and the clever structure of the story, weaving time backwards with related characters who meet and become intertwined, but I did, however, grow tired–exhausted!–by the end of the novel from the endless stream of destructive and desperate people in the story– preternaturally beautiful and stunning blondes, willfully self-destructive drug addicts, self-absorbed and vain men, who only wanted to satisfy their own desires. So, Alice Hoffman, having brought me as a reader down this path of woe, unrequited love, longing, and death, I really wanted a bigger bang at the end. No spoilers here, but I felt that the story ended with a sort of philosophical shrug at most, after opening the reader up for much more.