4 of 5 stars
bookshelves: historical-fiction, magical-realism, 2015-book-club-reads, favorites, library
Read from March 24 to April 23, 2015
“Listen, and you’ll hear a story being told, one you may need to know.”
My introduction to Alice Hoffman isn’t exactly memorable.
Practical Magic, which spawned the 1998 film, starring Sandra Bullock, Nicole Kidman, and Goran Visnjic, seemed to primarily focus on the progression of plot, as opposed to character development. In between chapters, I seem to recall there being interludes containing various ingredients, mostly natural herbs, which, in light of the rest of the 1995 novel, added a little something. The writing itself, however, left much to be desired. At the time, it felt mediocre, though I could be mistaken, as I often reminds myself, memory is subjective. Additionally, I’m a completely different person than I was then. I don’t believe that I fully appreciated quality writing (which might or might not have been there,) and longed more for plot and action.
On a side note, the film is one of the very rare instances where I actually prefer it over the novel.
The Museum of Extraordinary Things is wholly different. In fact, I recognized almost instantly that the writing is truly stellar. In the interim, she honed her craft by leaps and bounds. It’s often beautiful, touching, and profound. In hindsight, I think I knew that as long as her exquisite writing persisted, and featured a compelling, well thought out cast, and decent storytelling, then it would be time wisely spent. It is all that, and much more. In a word, it is masterful.
One of its strongest aspect is, undoubtedly, its historical accuracy, and for that alone Hoffman should be commended. In particular, she wrote about New York in the early 1900’s, and the tragic Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911, and the horrific impact it had on Manhattan.
In in the midst of devastation, heroism inevitably arises. It has to. It’s like an unspoken rule, or something. Such wisdom seems true not only in real life, but in fiction, as well. And in my admittedly limited experience, no other author does it as well as Hoffman. (She’s second only to Truman Capote, truly.) But more to the point, she utilized the facts and shaped her novel around them in such a way that it’s indescribable in a lot of ways. Her characters thrive as they’re thrown violently into this situation, which resulted in an impressive plot twist that though I knew a mysterious elements was forthcoming, I never saw its likeness emerging until it hit me squarely in the chest. This fascinating development allowed the crux of the story to thrive like never before. Hoffman also helped solidify the novel’s sense of reality by incorporating historical icons, such as Alfred Stieglitz and Moses Levy. Their innovative techniques in photography played significant parts in forever altering how we perceive art, the world, and to some extent, ourselves.
Eddie Cohen, a Ukranian immigrant to New York, is an apprentice to Hochman, received the following advice from the aforementioned charlatan:
“..Go back in time as far as you must. Speak to everyone who knew her. If you don’t find her, then in all likelihood she will find you. But you know what to do. Despite your flaws, you were my finest student…”
Hochman’s method’s of investigation felt very realistic to me. Reminiscent of Edgar Allan Poe’s early detective fiction, they were unique and groundbreaking, with a strong emphasis on professionalism, without the victim blaming that’s so prevalent today. The former work ethic felt very surreal, and it saddens me that for the most part, it’s a thing of the past. Most astonishing was the fact that while reading Hochman’s words, it felt original, despite the fact that Poe instilled similar values long before the events of Hoffman’s novel.
Upon further reflection, Eddie realized that “..it was the path of the soul he must set out to discover. To find someone, it was necessary to follow in the way that the angel’s who follow men’s lives on earth are said to do, charting each trespass without judgment, for judgment is never ours to give.”
There’s much to be said about U.S. immigration. The fact that it’s such a hot topic now makes it that much more relevant, and strengthens the work and the theme. As seen here, the influx of Russian and Ukranian individuals that desired better lives for themselves and their children.
In the long run, I think much of the novel came down to photography, and the technological advances of the early 1900’s, which are all symbolic of the world’s one constant: change. Hoffman also seems to be saying a lot about the power of a photograph:
“You took his photograph. Now you’re responsible for his soul…If a camera interfered with souls, I’d be equally responsible for yours, since you sat for a portrait.”
“In Levy’s [photographs] each tree possessed a soul, each field a beating heart.”
I almost get the sense that she likens it to God, which totally makes sense, and religion-the Jewish faith especially– plays a part here, too.
Together, Moses Levy and Alfred Stieglitz had the innate ability to “see into the world of shadows,” their art not only penetrated the grey realities of life, but the light and darkness, as well. Essentially, they captured “the soul” of the subject, positive or grim, and let the world decide. Much like Hochman and E.A. Poe’s sleuth, they seized the moment, reveling in honesty and goodness and compassion, regardless of its social standing.
“In our world of shadows, there is no black and white but a thousand different strokes of light.”
The narrative of the novel itself isn’t something you read every day. The two main characters, Eddie Cohen and Coralie Sardie, the daughter of a French immigrant and curator of the freakish museum, alternate back a forth, almost vying for dominance. Its format is interesting, too, because the first half of each chapter reads almost like journal entries, which takes you the heart of these great characters. The first person combined with third person narration allows you to know them much, much more. I feel like a know them on a very personal level.
The ending is the only element that I found lacking, and I’m not even sure why. Everything fell into place nicely and nothing felt contrived (I even found myself rooting for them to be together, which is rare for me,) there’s even another killer twist, but I don’t know why it feels like something is missing. That one unknowable element, I guess..
For that reason alone, I dropped my rate down to a strong 4.5 stars.
I might just have to revisit Practical Magic, after all!