Hoffman works her usual magic, traversing time and place to an extraordinary
time in early 20th-century New York. It is 1911, the year of two tragic fires:
the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire and the Dreamland Fire. We meet apprentice tailor
Ezekiel Cohen, who severs his life from that of his Russian immigrant father and his Lower East Side orthodox community,
changing his name to Eddie. On the streets of New York City he has become fascinated with photography and is the beneficiary of his mentor’s camera after the man’s unfortunate demise. Streetwise and weary, Eddie has taken to the wilder climes, where civilization has yet to transform the land into concrete, camping near a hermit.
Coralie Sardie, the only child of the impresario of The Museum of Extraordinary Things, an assemblage of nature’s freaks and curiosities on Surf Avenue in Brooklyn (not far from the soon-to-be-opened Dreamland), spies Eddie taking photographs on the banks of the Hudson. Eddie has taken pictures of the victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, one-hundred-forty-six young women lost in the sweatshop with no escape. Though neither is aware, their paths will cross when Eddie is led to The Museum of Extraordinary Things in search of a young woman who has never been found, assumed lost in the fire. Entreated by the dead girl’s father to find his daughter, Hannah, Eddie finds his fate inextricably linked with that of Coralie, a figment of his dreams until he spies her in the flesh.
The exotic creature who spins her web around Eddie’s imagination is rarely seen outside of her father’s domain, delivered to the banks of the river late at night by the Professor and a liveryman where she slides into the black water, swimming great distances to perpetuate one of the Professor’s myths to draw people to his museum. When the attraction is open, Coralie inhabits a tank as a mermaid, taking sips of air from a hidden tube. Having grown up among the human curiosities her father has gathered, Coralie considers herself a freak as well, hiding her webbed fingers with gloves she is never without. But over time, she has begun to question her father and their way of life, his cruelties and strict rules meant to keep her sheltered, to be used only in furthering his financial enterprises, which demand more outrageous acts as the nearby Dreamland nears its grand opening.
Though sprinkled with the usual fabulous eccentrics Hoffman so readily creates—the denizens of New York streets, charlatans, miscreants, the teeming poor and the pampered wealthy, those gathered to perform their specialties at the museum, Maureen, the Professor’s acid-scarred housekeeper who has cared for Coralie, the hermit who reluctantly befriends Eddie—it is Coralie who holds the center of the tale as Eddie draws ever closer in his search. These two lost souls are meant to find one another, their pasts and secrets told in a series of chapters interspersed with the real-time action that culminates the night of the Dreamland Fire.
Like a fairy tale, Hoffman spins a world where imagination offers refuge, where evil coexists with joy and where the expansions of civilization tramples of the needs of many to satisfy the urgency of the few in the name of progress. Workers, heiresses, idealists, corrupt politicians, side-show freaks, a crusty hermit, a photographer and a “human mermaid” dance through the pages of The Museum of Extraordinary Things, etching 1911, two devastating fires and the magical romance of two lovers who find a space to thrive amidst a century of furious progress.