Coralie lived in a house that also housed her father’s museum of wonders. She was not permitted to enter the museum part of the house until she reached a certain age. It contained specimens her father believed would be upsetting for her to see until she was 10 years old. In 1903, Coralie is finally old enough to enter. She has looked forward to this day, and although she enters with trepidation, she is also eager to see all that had been forbidden. Coralie had been sheltered from the world that existed outside of her home in the Coney Island section of Brooklyn. She was not allowed to mix with strangers. Brought up by a housekeeper/nanny, Maureen, who had been severely scarred from an acid attack, she was raised strictly. Her father’s rules were enforced and Maureen showed little outward affection toward her. Coralie really had no friends and no way to learn about the ways of the world. Coralie admired the “wonders” her father employed, the wonders that others, and even her father on some occasions, called freaks; the Siamese Twins, the Wolfman and the Butterfly Girl were all special to her, although many of the museum attractions often flitted in and out of her life because her father often fired them, without warning. Coralie had her own deformity. Her fingers were webbed. Her father warned her that she would be ridiculed and rejected as a freak if she showed them. As a result, she never went out in public without gloves.
Coralie’s father called himself Professor Sardie. Always on the lookout for a new attraction for his museum, he trained her to perform as a mermaid. She was able to stay submerged for great lengths of time, longer than most people could hold their breath. She trained in the Hudson River, a place she grew to love. In the museum, she swam in a tank; she was fitted with a mermaid costume. The museum held other strange wonders of the world under glass, some completely manufactured by Sardie. Coralie was devoted to her father and was always obedient. When attendance at the museum fell and their financial situation suffered, the professor abused Cora’s beauty and swimming ability to bring in extra cash. Cora was very naïve and weak and she did not fight back. She had no idea how to set herself free from her father’s control or his deceitful ways and was afraid, as she had been warned that society would reject her.
The major part of the novel took place in 1911, the year that Coralie turned 18. In that year, there was a terrible fire in the garment center of Manhattan. The owners of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory did not provide the workers with a decent wage or decent working conditions, and although the owners were able to escape a fiery death, their greed and cold-blooded disregard for their worker’s welfare was responsible for the deaths of scores of young children and women who worked the sewing machines slavishly. They were unable to get out of the building as stairways melted and exit doors were bolted. Two beautiful look-alike sisters worked there, but only one returned home that evening. Hannah Weiss was missing. Joseph Cohen, a devout, Orthodox Jew, advised Samuel to ask his son Ezekiel to find his daughter. He had not seen him in years, but he believed he had a talent for finding things. When he was about five years old, Ezekiel Cohen had escaped from the Ukraine and the pogroms with his father, Joseph. Somehow he was able to lead him out through the Russian forest. They came to the United States where Joseph earned his living as a tailor in Manhattan. Ezekiel followed in his footsteps, but for a variety of reasons he soon became disaffected with religion, and he Americanized his name and became Eddie. Leaving home in his teens, he eventually lost contact with his father and went to work for Abraham Hochman, the wizard, the seer of Rivington Street, a finder of missing things. After awhile, though, he came upon a photographer and was enchanted by his work. Soon, the photographer, Morris Levy was his mentor and surrogate parent. Eddie loved the camera lens because its eye saw more clearly than his own.
After the tragic garment center fire, spurred on by Joseph, Samuel Weiss beseeched Eddie to locate her. Eddie was shocked that his father even knew he was alive, yet alone where he lived. They had had no contact for years. Eddie was warmed by the thought that his father had been quietly watching him, never forgetting him. He surprised himself, moved by Weiss’ grief, and his father’s interest, he agreed to help, even though he no longer worked for “the wizard”.
Due to an odd set of circumstances, one involving Coralie and Eddie’s dog, Mitts, and another involving the search for Hannah Weiss, Coralie and Eddie meet for the first time. Instantly they are irreversibly attracted to each other, each occupying the other’s dreams afterward. Eddie had approached the Museum of Extraordinary Things in search of information on Hannah and was drawn to the strange “beauty” of the creatures lolling about there. He began to photograph them, completely enchanted, and he discovered that they were very willing subjects, eager to be sought after and appreciated. He spied Coralie, who was no longer a figment of his imagination or dreams, but Professor Sardie also spied him. Even after the Professor’s fury forced him off the property and he was violently beaten, their attraction to each other remained strong. Searching for love and a place to belong is universal, and all of the characters had been searching for years. Neither Coralie nor Eddie understood the meaning of love; Coralie had rarely been shown it and didn’t understand it; Eddie had misinterpreted several events in his life and become discouraged with it. Professor Sardie would have none of it, and he conspired to keep them apart.
As luck would have it, as the city advanced socially and commercially, and as Brooklyn became a mecca of amusement parks, the small museum’s success faded further. Greater attractions were being built and the museum was no longer profitable. Sardie, still obsessed with keeping the museum flourishing tried to “discover” a creature in the Hudson River that would reignite interest and bring throngs of people to his museum. To this end, he plotted and used Coralie in his maleficent scheme. However, his plan did not play out the way he had hoped and his difficulties soon grew worse. When a fire broke out at the newly renovated Dreamland Amusement park, it rang the death knell for his museum, as well.
Coralie discovered that the stories she had been told by her father, about her mother and her past were untrue. She began to wonder what else in her life was false. Who was her mother? How did Maureen acquire the scars? When she followed Maureen and discovered her relationship with the Wolfman, were they betraying her or protecting her?. Soon she realized that all she believed, all that her father had told her was not, in fact, the truth. He was not at all the man he pretended to be, and as his secrets were revealed she turned away from him. On the contrary, for Eddie, as his father’s secrets were revealed, he drew closer to his father. Where Eddie’s father possessed patience, Sardi possessed obsession and malice. They all soon discovered that the monster is often not the one who has the appearance of one.
There are a great many symbols and contrasting ideas expressed in the story. For instance, the blue thread is used to create things and to symbolize betrayal and death. It was a symbol both of luck and evil. The thread was used by the seamstress, the tailor, and on the opposite spectrum, the murderer and the victim. Injuries from burning recur in the story, from acid and flame. Fires break out in places of dreams and places of nightmares. There is a creature, a man who looks like a wolf, but his human nature is gentle and intelligent and then there is a wolf that has been somewhat tamed and tolerates some humans with gentleness and loyalty, although he remains true to his violent nature. There is the blue coat that is the symbol of a missing young woman and the coat that flies out as someone is thrown into the river, then there is the coat that is put on to provide warmth and comfort and the coat that is given as a gift of love, both in contrast. Water takes the life of some and saves the lives of others. One man is called ‘the wizard” because he discovers things that are hidden from those searching, another is called “the professor” because he discovers “wonders” to put on display and exploits those things he finds. Both main characters lived sheltered lives, one lived a life imposed by her father who thought he was godlike and the other lived a life imposed by his father and his father’s G-d, both lived in a prison of sorts from which they needed to break free. Famous names were sprinkled throughout, like the infamous criminal Al Capone contrasted with the opposing famous photographer, Alfred Stieglitz.
The story is told in alternating chapters featuring either Eddie or Cora. An additional narrator, at times, explained the background of the setting of the scene, and it sometimes created more confusion for me than explanation. At other times, the story veered off into extraneous directions which didn’t seem to truly serve much of a purpose, but then the reader might have a sudden revelation as the comparison between two opposing ideas became obvious. For instance, the relationship between the wolfman and the wolf was more interesting after careful thought. One behaved like a human and was taught to growl; the other’s nature was to growl but was taught to control it. This story coupled many ideas together in the same way that it coupled historic fact with fiction. It was a study in contrasts as well as kind of Romeo and Juliet drama. I was pleased to be encouraged to do further research into some of the incidents and areas described by the author. Ideas were presented and explored about the current events of the time frame, worker’s rights, women’s rights, class distinction, ethics and morality. The story clearly illustrated that you could, but should not judge a book by its cover. Wonders were not freaks, but simply people in different aspects. Outward appearances and behavior often gave false impressions. The Professor dressed well, but he was selfish and cruel. Raymond Morris looked monstrous, but he was kind and compassionate.
At the end, I had some unanswered questions to think about. I wondered why Eddie returned the watch he had stolen. Did it signify that he could finally see the truth of his errors while the other man remained blind and unwilling to see the errors of his own. Did he want to cut off connections to his Harry’s evil. I couldn’t help thinking of the Twin Towers as the historic fires were described, as victims jumped to escape the flames and other victims ran to escape. I wondered how many other readers might have also connected the two events.
I was drawn to this book because it takes place in an area I knew well. Born and raised in Brooklyn, Coney Island was my playground. I was a teacher in the Williamsburg area. My father was brought to Manhattan from the Ukraine by his father, who was, coincidentally, another Joseph Cohen. My grandfather, however, was a house painter. He eventually moved his family from the Lower East Side of Manhattan, to Brooklyn. My maternal grandfather came from Kiev and was a tailor. My husband’s grandfather came from Poland and was a tailor. I have a painting of a tailor in a skullcap that is faded and ghostly. So the story attracted me first because of the nostalgia, and then because I also grew up in the era of Barnum and Bailey and the notorious “freak shows” of the circus. I remember that it was the least favorite part of the circus for me. I rarely went with the rest of my family. As I recalled the neighborhoods and highlights of my younger days, I was drawn more and more into the story. Gravesend, Flatlands, Brighton, Kings County, Chelsea and Central Park were all familiar places to me and it was a fine place in which to grow up, in my day.