Meet the charmer of the summer, an epistolary novel about two strangers dismayed by where their lives have taken them. Dissatisfied farmer's wife Tina Hapgood and lonely museum curator Anders Larsen initially connect over a shared fascination with the miraculous Iron Age archaeological find known as the Tollund Man, but their relationship soon deepens as they begin to excavate their own chosen life paths in a series of letters.
The act of articulating their feelings in writing helps clarify their thoughts and creates a lifeline that lifts them out of the bog of their circumstances. Tina was pushed into marriage by a pregnancy; after 40 years she's regretting the options she never had the chance to consider. Recently widowed Anders works at Denmark's Silkeborge Museum, which houses Tollund Man. Gradually, their salutations progress from "Dear Mrs. Hopgood" and "Best Wishes" to "My dear Tina" and "All my love." Deep into their 18-month correspondence, Anders writes, "Our letters have meant so much to us because we have both arrived at the same point in our lives. More behind us than ahead of us. Paths chosen define us." But also: "Enough time to change."
Meet Me at the Museum introduces a septuagenarian first-time British author who could be a poster child for change: Anne Youngson took early retirement from a successful career in the auto industry to pursue her lifelong desire to write. Her lovely debut novel recalls heartwarmers like Kent Haruf's Our Souls at Night, and two longtime favorite epistolary novels, Helene Hanff's 84, Charing Cross Road and Jean Webster's 1912 classic, Daddy-Long-Legs.
Youngson captures two distinct characters through their thoughtful, empathetic letters: Anders lives mostly indoors, Tina outdoors. His house is spare, modern Danish design; her old English farmhouse is cluttered with objects that weigh her down. His initially dry and fact-filled letters become increasingly confiding and warm. She regrets her outbursts of bitterness over a life "sacrificed ... to the social standards of my parents and their peers" and to the farm, which her husband cares about above all else, including her. A rare hiccup: Despite Anders' qualms about his English, there's no sense that he's writing in other than his native tongue.
While extolling the possibility of change at any age, Meet Me at the Museum also makes a strong case for the generous give-and-take of old-fashioned, substantive letters. Even when Tina and Anders opt for the convenience of typing their replies on laptops and sending them as email attachments, their letters are far more carefully composed than the quick lines typically dashed off in emails or texts.
There's nothing breezy, cursory, or flirtatious about these missives. Tina and Anders describe activities and outings that define the contours of their days; with time, they open up about their spouses and grown children. They write about what music means to him and poetry to her — including Seamus Heaney's poem "The Tollund Man." Both have recently suffered losses: Her best friend, with whom she'd long hoped to visit Tollund Man; his strange, haunted wife. They share regrets and concerns, and debate in depth the ramifications of his daughter's surprise pregnancy and her initial decision not to tell the baby's father.
Tina's letters are filled with vivid details about "the relentless timetable of food production," including tending chickens and slaughtering pigs. When she scorns the absurdities of pheasant hunts, Anders helps her to see them differently, as rituals. She describes picking raspberries, noting that no matter how careful she is, she always finds some she's missed. "Another life, I thought, might be like a second pass down the row of raspberry canes," she writes. "There would be good things I had not come across in my first life, but I suspect I would find much of the fruit was already in my basket." Raspberries become their private shorthand for second chances. Anders replies, "Unlike you, I feel I have overlooked far too many of the fruits in this life I have."
Meet Me at the Museum is a touching, hopeful story about figuring out what matters and mustering the courage to make necessary changes. At one point, Anders writes encouragingly to his despairing penpal, "Please do not be angry with the circumstances of your life ... nothing is so fixed it cannot be altered." Both the substance and very existence of this impressive late-life debut bring to mind a nugget of advice imparted to a friend by his wise therapist: "Life's open-ended if you can get there."
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