Coralie’s father runs a sideshow on Coney Island, although he prettifies it by calling his establishment a museum — the museum of the title, to be precise. And he’s groomed his daughter her whole life to become one of the exhibits in that sideshow. With Dreamland, the amusement park, undergoing expansion just a short walk away, the Professor (as he prefers to be called) is struggling to hold on to the tiny niche he’s carved out for himself. With Coralie as his living mermaid, he thinks he’s found his draw. Coralie, a dutiful daughter, does as she’s told, and doesn’t truly understand how she’s abused. This treatment is her norm, although she doesn’t like it, and she practices tiny rebellions to alleviate her miserable existence.
Eddie, an erstwhile tailor’s apprentice and bookmaker’s runner, left his father and his Jewish heritage behind with scarcely a look back, and currently makes a living as a photographer, stalking the streets of New York in search of news, and occasionally wandering into the wilds along the Hudson to shoot nature and commune with the quiet. As you may expect, eventually Coralie’s and Eddie’s worlds collide, and therein lies our story.
New York in the early 1900s makes a bustling and dramatic backdrop for our hero and heroine to play against: both the horrific Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire and the conflagration that destroys Dreamland figure heavily into Hoffman’s plot. And I know I’m not doing that plot justice with this synopsis. Let me just say that within the confines of this novel you’ll find people of all sorts: beautiful, disfigured, frightening, gentle, loving, manipulative, terrified, overbearing, wealthy, destitute, determined, hopeless, and most of all wonderfully human: people who are making their way the best way they can in the cold cold city.
A sweet and unsettling story.