LIVES SHARED BY LETTERS: MEET ME AT THE MUSEUM

Sometimes you don’t want a thriller or a book that explores all the depths to which human beings can sink.  Sometimes, especially in dark periods, what you’re looking for is a book that makes you feel better about your fellow human beings, a book that’s not all action and plot but is about connections between people, a book you read slowly to savor.  If that’s where you are right now, may I suggest Meet Me at the Museum, a debut novel by Anne Youngson?

The book is old fashioned in a couple of ways (not bad ways, either).  For one thing, it’s an epistolary novel, told entirely in the form of letters between the two main characters (and real letters, not emails, either!).  While there have been other popular books written in this format (think of 84 Charing Cross Road, for instance), and while some of the first novels were epistolary in format (including the source for Dangerous Liaisons), it’s not a popular format these days, though it’s perfectly suited to the two main characters, their situations and their relationship.

Another way in which the book is old-fashioned is that it’s slow paced, as befits a book composed of letters back and forth between two people who start out as complete strangers and gradually become close.  It’s not usual these days for an author to trust readers to relax into a book and let things develop slowly, but often that’s the way relationships develop, and it’s more realistic than the “instant intimacy” (as a dear friend of mine once put it) that’s more popular nowadays.

The two main characters, finally, are kind of old-fashioned themselves, both in their 60’s and looking at their lives with an eye toward their past decisions and what remains of their futures.  Tina is a farmer’s wife in East Anglia, England, who’s just lost her closest friend to cancer. She and her friend had always talked about going to see the Tollund Man, a mummified corpse of a man preserved for thousands of years in a bog, and now on display in a museum in Denmark. But life got in the way, and they never made the trip.  Now, after her friend’s death, Tina writes to the professor she and her friend met as children, ostensibly talking about the Tollund Man, but really trying to figure out where her own life went. The professor she writes to has already died, so the letter is passed on to Anders, a professor and expert in the Iron Age peoples. He has his own disappointments and sorrows, including the recent death of his wife, and he writes back to Tina in a businesslike way, giving her facts about the museum and the mummy.  That should be the end of it, but Tina doesn’t take that formal letter as the end, and writes back to him, and he writes back to her, and gradually, over time, the tone of their letters changes, as the two people, who never meet in person, start sharing things they never would have said to anyone else face to face.

This is probably not going to be one of those hot books that everybody has to read, but it’s the kind of book that warms your heart and makes you think about choices and the meaning of ordinary lives, which could be just the thing you need to read right now.

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