Last Reviewed on January 7, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 995
Coralie Sardie lives in New York at the turn of the twentieth century, the daughter of a man called the Professor who sees himself as a scientist and runs the sinister Museum of Extraordinary Things. Coralie lives above the museum but at first is not allowed to visit it, because the Professor says it may scare her. Coralie's mother died when Coralie was young, and as her only living biological parent, the Professor has constructed a strange set of rules for his daughter. This includes her swimming outdoors on summer nights and taking ice baths in the winter. Coralie is watched over and cared for by a housekeeper named Maureen, who has been physically disfigured by an encounter with acid.
The Professor owns and operates the Museum of Extraordinary Things as a show for visitors to Coney Island. Coralie is left out of it until the day she turns ten years old, in 1903. At that point, she is led through the exhibit by her father. He then includes her in the show as a display item among other Living Wonders; because she was born with webbed fingers and has trained as a swimmer, she is called the Human Mermaid.
In the show, Coralie wears a mermaid suit at her father's insistence and spends time in a tank. At first, she is happy in this role and becomes close to other performers, most notably the Wolfman. Maureen and the Wolfman develop a friendship. As for Coralie, she must continue swimming during the nights and eating a controlled diet as specified by her father, who believes the food she takes in contributes to her supposed mermaidhood.
Coralie begins to see herself in terms of her father's ideal perception of her as a mermaid. She becomes upset as she grows up that she does not actually have gills and must wear gloves on her hands when she is not performing. The museum begins to flounder as the city and its interests change, contributing to the Professor's desperation and willingness to use his daughter to make money. When Coralie is older, the Professor forces her against her will to perform in special nighttime shows for private audiences, in which she is naked.
Then, in 1911, when Coralie is eighteen years old, the Professor makes her swim in the Hudson with a disguise so that people will see her and be frightened. He believes this plan will help him stir up business for the Museum of Extraordinary Things. In part, this works—there are news items about the supposed monster, and rumors start to swirl in the community. One night, however, Coralie's late-night swim takes a menacing turn, and she is swept up in the strong current of the river. She comes ashore onto dry land and sees a young man who has a camera at a campfire, and she promptly falls in love with him.
We learn that the young man, Eddie Cohen, was born in Russia into an Orthodox Jewish family but left his family, his religion, and his job as a tailor. He has had struggles with his father, who lost his job and may have tried to kill himself. He carries a camera because he hopes to become a press photographer and has been on a mission since documenting the historic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. After taking photographs at the site of the tragedy, Eddie was propositioned by a man named Samuel who lost his daughter Hannah. Hannah had worked at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, but her body was not found at the site of the fire, and Samuel hopes Eddie might have captured traces of her in his photographs. The photographs show no sign of Hannah, but Eddie decided to help Samuel and investigate the mystery.
One part of that mystery is solved when Coralie finds a corpse in the river during a swim—the body of a woman, with blue thread sewn onto her lips to close them. Coralie tells her father, and he takes it to the Museum of Extraordinary Things to make it into another monster. Eddie speaks to someone who saw Hannah's body being taken away, and he eventually finds the museum and sees Coralie. She helps him take the body—Hannah's body—to her father, Samuel. Eventually, the Professor discovers what Coralie has done and, in his anger, keeps her locked in the basement.
Around the same time, Eddie figures out why Hannah was murdered. Because she was organizing for workers and their rights, a man named Frank Herbert was instructed to scare her into being quiet. Though he was not instructed to murder her, she ended up dead in the interaction, and Frank threw her into the Hudson.
Eddie also discovers that his father had not tried to kill himself but was pushed for reasons similar to those that led to Hannah's death. Samuel was in favor of workers' rights and had come under fire for this reason. He and Eddie able to make up and forgive one another. Samuel was attempting to ensure Eddie's safety the whole time.
When a Coney Island show catches fire and the fire spreads toward the museum, the Professor dies trying to put out the spreading flames. Coralie is still in the basement, but Eddie is able to reach her in time, and she saves both of them: they survive the fire by staying in the water tank where Coralie was forced to perform as the Human Mermaid. After the fire, the two leave Coney Island to marry and escape the place that had trapped Coralie for her whole life. Coralie eventually writes a letter to Maureen, explaining these turns of events. The narration brings up the possibility that Maureen is Coralie's mother and that the Professor lied to Coralie. Similar to Eddie's trajectory with his reconciliation with his father, the ending suggests Coralie never lost her mother. Eddie tells her "The world is ours," implying a happy ending for the two main characters.
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