The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman
Like so many of Alice Hoffman's novels there is something that appears to be magic, but truly is not. The extraordinary things in this novel are mostly humans with birth defects or acquired abnormalities such as being covered i tattoos. They are all exhibited along with some rare birds, a giant tortoise, and a number of strange (sometimes fake) creatures in formaldehyde, in Coralie's father's museum. Coralie's father keeps her away from these "freaks" when she is a child, but as she grows older she becomes one of the exhibits since she has her own abnormality, webbed fingers. Coralie is trained by being required to stay in a tub full of ice water for hours and developing her ability to hold her breath so that she can become a "mermaid" in a tank of water in the museum. As the prosperity of the museum is challenged by bigger and brighter entertainments in Coney Island, Coralie's father stoops to having her perform as something of an underwater stripper for groups of "gentlemen" in the evenings. Coralie is extremely sheltered, never allowed out without supervision except for quick trips to the market. When she happens upon a young man one night after a nightly swim in the freezing Hudson, her life changes completely.
The tale of this young man, Eddie, is interwoven with that of Coralie in the novel. Having escaped Russia with his father after his mother and everyone else in his village was murdered, Eddie is not content to slave in a factory as his father has done. He strikes out, first working as a sort of child detective, then becoming a photographer. He abandons his Jewish traditions, and he and his father become alienated. Eddie chronicles life in New York City including the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. This event involves him in searching for a lost girl who should have been in the building that day and leads him inexorably toward Coralie.
There is a great deal of suspense and there are some truly disturbing scenes, but mainly this novel explores what "humanity" is and how outward appearance has little relationship to the quality of character. I thoroughly enjoyed this book.