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.
Tag Archives: commercial fiction
I started reading the classic gothic tale “The Woman in White” by Wilkie Collins. The story is always referenced as one of first of its genre and certainly enjoys a special place in literature. I was dismayed, however, to find that I could not drag myself through the long and excruciatingly detailed descriptions, the painfully stiff dialog, and the dragging pace. I am ashamed of and disappointed in myself. Have I become that type of reader? Someone who has to have snappy dialogue or an act of sex or violence on every page, and who cannot read a description which exceeds two lines? Have I indulged in too regular a diet of commercial fiction that I can no longer enjoy the slower pace of a 19th century work? I was a Russian literature major, for goodness sake! I was weened on long, long novels wherein absolutely nothing happened and that was sort of the point. Ultimately, I have not given up entirely on the Woman in White, despite its massive bulk…(I put it aside at about page 50 of its more than 500+ pages.) I haven’t quite given up on myself, either, and promise to get back to some more challenging reading this year (alert: sounds like a new year resolution). In the meantime, I’m indulging in the guilty pleasure of reading Robert Parker’s “Melancholy Baby.” Don’t judge me!