I knew I was supposed to have sympathy for the main character, the orphaned Jane, who was near my age and all but friendless and whose name I took for myself on the nights I wandered off on my own. Yet it was the madwoman locked in the attic who held my interest and compassion.“–Alice Hoffman’s The Museum of Extraordinary Things
I haven’t been blogging much about reading lately.
One word: reading.
I go through phases where I read and read and read.
My husband wonders why I don’t write my blog. Who is that woman curled up on the couch with a book? He thinks I should write something more important than a blog–like what?–but he knows this is my routine.
Oddly, this got trashed in The New York Times Book Review. Katharine Weber, the author of Triangle, a novel about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911, seems disgruntled by Hoffman’s fairy-tale-ish portrayal of the same events.
Weber writes: “Hoffman’s depiction of the Triangle fire only vaguely conveys the pathos and urgency of that historic disaster, which took the lives of 146 garment workers in a matter of minutes.”
Hoffman has a dreamy, poetic style that is completely different from Weber’s solid realism–and I also admired Weber’s novel. This is a strange instance, I think, of a bad pairing of a reviewer and a novel. How could there not be competitiveness here?
In The Museum of Extraordinary Things, Hoffman interweaves the stories of two protagonists, Coralie and Eddie, who eventually meet and fall in love. Coralie is the daughter of the cruel owner of The Museum of Extraordinary Things, a museum of “freaks” (Siamese twins, dwarfs, giants, and the butterfly woman, who has no arms and fake wings attached) and gruesome artefacts he has collected or fabricated. He forces Coralie, who has webbed hands, to swim long distances in the Hudson River to prepare for a mermaid act in a tank. She is kept at home, so she will keep his secrets. The only people she knows are his employees; especially influential are the housekeeper who has raised her, Maureen, who has burns on her face from acid; and Maureen’s lover, the Wolf Man, a man born with hair all over his body, who was imprisoned for years in an attic by his family in Richmond, Virginia, and finally escaped, inspired by Jane Eyre.
The other protagonist is Eddie Cohen, a Russian refugee, tailor’s son, and ex-factory worker who becomes an artistic photographer. He is also a photojournalist who pushes past the barriers when the Triangle factory is on fire and women trapped in a locked room jump from the windows. He eerily photographs this tragic scene.
At first, the falling girls had seemed like birds. Bright cardinals, bone-white doves, swooping blackbirds in velvet-collared coats. But when they hit the cement, the terrible truth of the matter was revealed. Their bodies were broken, dashed to their deaths right before those who stood by helpless. A police officer near Eddie groaned and turned away, his head in his hands, for there was no way to save those who were already falling and no way to come to terms with the reality before them. The life nets being held out were worthless; bodies soared right through the netting. Many of the desperate leapers barreled onward, through the glass cellar lights embedded in the sidewalk, to the basements below.
Eddie and Coralie meet because of a drowned woman who was employed at the Triangle factory and mysteriously not among the survivors or the dead. This is a kind of mystery, and I don’t want to give away too much. (Anyway, I’m not finished with the book yet.)
At her best, Hoffman writes gorgeously. The depth of her research about Coney Island and the Triangle factory, combined with her lyricism, makes this one of her most fascinating novels. Before this, my favorite was Second Nature, about a suburban woman who rescues a man raised by wolves.
Don’t be surprised if this makes my Best of 2014 list (see sidebar). It’s one of those occasions when picking up a best-seller is worth it.