Alice Hoffman specializes in fairy tales for impressionable grown-ups and cautionary tales for precocious adolescents. Not infrequently, the two overlap.
Her latest fiction for the former demographic, a melancholic love story that spotlights corruption and exploitative labor practices in 1911 New York City, revisiting kid-enticing motifs from the author’s earliest young-adult novels “Aquamarine,” “Indigo,” and “Green Angel”: mermaids, conflagrations, and children with webbed hands.
The events of “The Museum of Extraordinary Things,” which largely take place over a couple of months in 1911, are framed by the building and cataclysmic destruction of the Coney Island amusement park Dreamland, a gleaming chimera of white facades and light bulb-splashed rides that offered New Yorkers a tonier alternative to the mass-market fare at nearby Steeplechase and Luna Park.
One doesn’t have to probe very deeply here to glean a metaphor for the nurturing and shattering of childhood illusions, as embodied in Hoffman’s fated-to-be-mated protagonists Coralie Sardie and Eddie Cohen, who take turns telling their tales, interspersed with sections of third-person narration.
Coralie, born with webbing between her fingers, identifies with the outcast populace at the book’s titular museum, a modest collection of malformed individuals and biological oddities that feeds off the spillover crowds from the far-more-spectacular Dreamland across the street.
The gallery’s curator is Coralie’s father, the self-anointed Professor Sardie, a French magician-turned-scientist whose morbid experiments and despotic dominion over daughter and employees alike recall H.G. Wells’s Dr. Moreau.
And no one on the professor’s little island of lost souls is exploited with greater absence of shame than Coralie, who is forced to swim for her supper in such sideshow-like guises as the Human Mermaid and the Hudson Mystery.
Where Coralie is trapped in the grip of a dominating patriarch, Eddie, born Ezekiel, has gone to painful lengths to distance himself from an ineffectual father, a Jewish widower who fled from pogroms in Ukraine only to be subject to the tyrannies of life as a garment worker on the Lower East Side.
Rejecting his father’s Orthodox heritage, Eddie hurtles himself into the thick of New York’s underbelly, tracking down missing persons in the employ of a self-styled Jewish mystic (a figure based on the real-life “Seer of Rivington Street,” Abraham Hochman), and then as an at-large photographer of human casualty and misfortune.
Both of these occupations are brought to bear when Eddie is summoned to photograph a fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory and is subsequently hired by an aggrieved father to find a daughter possibly lost among the 147 dead workers. It is this epic sweatshop tragedy that throws Eddie into the path of Coralie, who has stumbled upon the body of a young woman during one of her Hudson River swims.
While historical fiction that locates the intersection of high society and hoi polloi in old New York has a venerable tradition, extracting a murder mystery and dewy romance from a tragedy as consequential as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire is problematic at best.
In conflating made-up characters with real-life incident and figures, Hoffman is trafficking more in the tabloid territory of Caleb Carr’s “The Alienist” than the impressionistic dabbling of E.L. Doctorow’s “Ragtime.” Like Carr, Hoffman’s book earns its legitimacy through an eye-opening plethora of period detailing, coupled with the author’s overarching outrage at urban workplace abuses.
If “The Museum of Extraordinary Things” descends into high corn in its final stretch, you can’t help but admire the author’s fervor for telling stories and the democratic manner in which she disseminates the love of reading: Fiends and heroines alike lose themselves in great literature. A special place in her protagonist Coralie’s heart is reserved for Edgar Allen Poe, whose ghost hovers over the novel’s fiery climax with detectable satisfaction.
Jan Stuart reviews fiction and is the author of “The Nashville Chronicles:
The Making of Robert Altman’s Masterpiece.’’ He can be reached at email@example.com.