A few weeks ago, my book club met to discuss Alice Hoffman’s The Museum of Extraordinary Things. I wasn’t a big fan of the book and I dragged my feet to get through it. I find these usually make the best book club discussions and I did feel we had a good one that night. It was a mixed bag of feelings. A quick straw poll gave us six out of fourteen that enjoyed the book.
The setting was really vivid in the book. Hoffman is from New York and that helps explain her ideas to set a book in such a volatile year, one that many of us had never heard of in American history. Our facilitator looked up a lot of history on the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. The owners of the factory were acquitted of manslaughter in the criminal case. A civil case was filed and the men were fined about $75 per casualty. The insurance payout they got was more than the cost of damages by about $400 per casualty. One of the owners was caught locking doors at a factory again and was fined $20 (source). This meeting was in mid-September and many people had finished the book around 9/11 so the images of people jumping out of a building to their deaths were horrific, especially close to such a date. Many were also reminded of the Dhaka Fire, a garment factory that caught fire in Bangladesh in 2012 though casualties, in this case, were caused more by improper exits than any locked doors (source).
One of the things I said bothered me was that the Triangle Shirtwaist fire seemed really removed. It was pointed out to me that Eddie was a photojournalist, someone who sees things through a lens and has to have some level of removal to photograph the things he saw. Eddie was a character with a lot of distance around him as evidenced in his distance from his father. Some felt that the fire was the impotence for Eddie trying to reconnect with other things in his life and was the beginning of his character development. He had been disconnected and desensitized by what he saw growing up in the Ukraine and he had let it affect him for a long time. Seeing such a tragedy spurred him to change.
There’s not much to say about our other main character, Cora. She always thought of herself as a monster yet the characterization of the human oddities made them seem less monsterish than the humans around them. The biggest mystery surrounding Cora was her mother. I thought Maureen was her biological mother and that it wasn’t just an emotional parentage, but some disagreed. The coloring between the two girls didn’t match though that could be explained by a father. We all felt it was rather reminiscent of Moses.
I was not the only one who thought the romance was incredibly cliché and that taking it out would have made the book better. It made some people think of Romeo and Juliet or a Lifetime Movie. This almost made sense because with Coralie’s innocence, all she knew of romance was from fairy tales and books, but Eddy would have known better. It was too juvenile for someone of his background.
Coralie’s father is one of the other major characters in the story though we thought he faded a lot in importance as the story went on. One member was expecting something dark from their relationship but in the end, it wasn’t as terrible as we expected. She was reminded of the story Rappaccini’s Daughter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. I think that would have made a better ending.
The side characters were more interesting than many of the main characters. Some favorites were Beck, Hochman, Mr. Weiss, and Levy. These four men made up the father Eddie was missing in his life. I think Levy is the best example of all of them, but Hochman did good things for Eddie growing up. Interestingly enough, Hochman is a real historical figure.
It was pointed out how many animals were in the story. The trout in the pail repeated a lot, representing Eddie being unable to let go of Coralie. There was also Mitts, North, the tortoise, the elephant, and the black lion. Many of the characters were kinder to animals than they were to other humans throughout the book. The factory owners had dogs that they treated like kings but didn’t care about the lives of those around them. Beck would shoot a man as soon as talk to him, but he loved his wolf. We trust animals more than men.
One thing that bothered a lot of us was the hitman sewing his victim’s mouths shut. We got that it was supposed to send a signal to those that were fighting for a union, but it was more like a serial killer than a hired hand. It was a bit too far.
There was a big fire and water motif in the book. Eddie’s story starts with running away from a fire in the Ukraine. The fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was the beginning of the story and Eddie’s character development and it all culminated in the Dreamland Fire. Coralie’s story was all in the water. She grew up on the water, found the girl in the water, and was saved by water from the fire. Maureen also had been burned, though with acid. Eddie’s father jumped into the river which was when Eddie mentally gave up on his father. Many of the major changes in the book took place in one or the other.
One theme very few of us picked up on was the contrast between those women fighting for rights such as the factory owners’ daughter and the missing girl and woman who are helpless or abused like Cora and Maureen. The abused women are scared to speak up while the others are screaming to be heard. It’s those screaming who end up in more trouble, but those hiding had to fight for their rights as well.
Thanks for reading about our discussion. We’ll meet again in October with a creepy read for fall. Until next time, write on.