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361 pages, Paperback
First published January 1, 2014
The best part of the story for me was the inclusion and very vividly recounted true historical events of two horrific fires that took place in New York in the early 1900's; one at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory and the other at Dreamland in Coney Island.
Overall, I think this is a pretty good read, for the historical value alone, but I personally would have enjoyed it more with a single narration (without the sometimes repetitiveness of the italic's section), AND without the animal cruelty.
“This is the dawning of the Age of the Aquarius…Aquarius! Aquarius!”. I’ve never had that song in my head, ever. Well, maybe the night after I saw the traveling production of Hair, but that has been quite a while back. It kept repeating in my head this morning as though it were dying to be heard, and how fitting that the book comes out tomorrow during the month of the Aquarius and the book is centered around a young girl who lives the life of a fish.
The Museum of Extraordinary Things begins with a young lady named Coralie. Her name seems fitting as she is destined to live most of her life in water. Her father, Sadie/the Professor is a tyrant who was once a magician in France. After being exposed and sued for the mistreatment of one of his employees, he snuck away to New York City where he decided to work in the name of Science rather than magic. This is how the Museum is brought to life. This place is not what one would consider an ordinary museum, as the name insinuates, but one filled with animals, fossils, and humans of the unique type. Sadie hires employees who are missing arms and replaces them with silk butterfly wings, a man who is completely covered with hair and looks beastly, a woman so thin that you can practically see through her, etc. At one point he refers to them as freaks, so in some ways this is his idea of a freak show for all the world to see and it is all in the name of ‘science’. It is not just the performers who have a ‘deformity’, but Coralie has one just as well. She has webbed fingers that are continuously hidden by gloves year round, with the exception of when she is in the water. Naturally she is ashamed to be so different and had once attempted to cut the webbing off.
It isn’t until Coralie turns ten-years-old that she is even allowed to see all of the creatures and attractions of the museum. As a child, she was forced to cover her eyes with Muslin so that she couldn’t see all of the monstrosities of the museum. The day of her tenth birthday would be the day that she would become the main attraction, and she knows this as soon as she spies her birthday gift from her father.
“It stood in a place of honor: a large tank of water. On the bottom there were shells gathered from all over the world, from the Indian Ocean to the China Sea.” “Beneath that title was carved one word alone, my name, Coralie. I did not need further instructions. I understood that all of my life had been mere practice for this very moment. Without being asked, I slipped off my shoes. I knew how to swim.” ~Coralie
Up until this point in her life, her father had been grooming her for this very day. She was to only take baths in ice water and lie underneath the surface practicing how long she could hold her breath. She would swim in the frigid Hudson River in the winter and could have been considered a fish for she could swim in conditions that most could not. All of this was to prepare her to swim in a tank as a mermaid with a hidden air tube that she rarely needed to use due to the rigorous training up until that point in her life. “She felt she barely needed air.”
Her father was always looking for the next big attraction and when Coralie’s popularity started to wan as she got older, he set out in hopes of something bigger. During the evenings, he had her swim in the River while tugging at fishing lines and frightening local fisherman to believe there was a monster of some kind in the water. He was doing this in hopes to be the person who discovers this beast and of course will display it in his museum.
One evening, the current seems to be stronger than Coralie is used to and she has no marker that lets her know how far up the river she is. She swims further than planned and comes upon a handsome man and his overly-friendly pit bull terrier. She sees that he is next to a camera and must be a photographer. When she sees his face, it is as though she falls in love in that very instant.
Eddie is the name of the photographer. He was once a practicing Orthodox Jew named Ezekiel, but after his father jumps in the River of what Ezekiel believes is an attempt of suicide for the mourning of his deceased mother, Ezekiel decides in that moment that his father is a coward and he doesn’t want to be like him.
Ezekiel is soon hired by a local “wizard”, Abraham Hochman, who the locals believe is psychic and solves the locations of husbands who have escaped the duties of their families in order to begin a new life. It seems miraculous that he solves all of these mysteries all by himself to the public, but in truth he hires a handful of young boys to do his dirty work. Ezekiel becomes one of his runners and find that he has a natural talent at finding the scum bags and even finds the corpse of a missing boy although he gets no recognition for it, as it is Hochman who is believed to have discovered the location of the deceased boy.
Not long after this Ezekiel happens upon a photographer named Moses Levy, cuts his hair, and changes his name to Eddie and leaves the world of the Orthodox behind. He becomes an apprentice of the photographer up until his death. Although at times he felt like an imposter with the camera, Eddie tried to stay on the same path as his mentor as he knew he was headed in the right direction.
“Eddie had come to understand that what a man saw and what actually existed in the natural world often were contradictory. The human eye was not capable of true sight, for it was constrained by its own humanness, clouded by regret, and opinion, and faith. Whatever was witnessed in the real world unknowable in real time. It was the eye of the camera that captured the world as it truly was. For this reason photography was not only Eddie’s profession, it was his calling.”
Eventually he realizes that he doesn’t have the same eye as Levy, who focused mainly on the beauty of nature and make a living shooting the happiness of wedding ceremonies. What enticed Eddie was the human condition in its various environments. He soon became a photographer for the newspapers, snapping shots of criminals who were either guilt-ridden or dead of all emotion and crime scenes. After seeing the world of shady men abandoning their families, corpses, and murderer’s it seems that Eddie has no use for life and is very detached in it. Eventually he is called to use his skills of investigating again and his life sets in an entirely different direction, one that introduces him to Coralie. It isn’t until the sight of Coralie that something unravels inside his heart and shakes him to the core.
The depth of the book is amazing and the descriptives were astounding. Some can focus on the incredibly bad card that these two, and everyone around them for that matter, were dealt, but there is real beauty in each and every one of them. The heart of the story boils down to these two individuals who are searching for the truth and they see this quality, and somehow an immediate bond is formed. Coralie allows Eddie to see that his emotions aren’t dead and that he has an enormous amount of compassion and empathy that is deeply hidden. On the other hand, Eddie seems to bring out a side of Coralie that allows her to question her surroundings and eventually she aids him in exposing secrets and lies. They seem to work harmoniously together without effort.
There were a handful of other characters and I became attached to every single one of them from Coralie to a Cereus plant that lies dormant and frustrates Coralie. Each and every life of the museum was exposed in a way that I wanted them to be set free and that included Coralie as well. I never thought it possible to be connected to even inanimate objects of a novel, but I am now guilty of it.
I would say that this is my favorite book of the year so far. I never bite my nails and yet I have stubs today after finishing the book last night. My eyes were also a bit puffy from the tears the characters pulled from me. I was definitely taken for a ride with this read and although my emotions were all over the place, I appreciate a book that is able to pull that much emotion out of me.
This book will be out tomorrow February 18, and I highly suggest reading this one. Not only is is unique, but it pulls you into the story. I suppose that I will keep singing the Aquarius song in my head, but hopefully it has stopped now that I have purged the contents of this book on the screen, so I will end it with, “Let the sun shine, let the sun shine in”.
Thanks to Netgalley and Scribner for allowing me a copy of this fantastic novel.
“..Go back in time as far as you must. Speak to everyone who knew her. If you don’t find her, then in all likelihood she will find you. But you know what to do. Despite your flaws, you were my finest student…”
“In our world of shadows, there is no black and white but a thousand different strokes of light.”