This is the second book I’ve enjoyed from the list of comfort reads that A Life in Books recommends. It is an epistolary novel; in this case the letters are exchanged between Tina Hopgood, a farmer’s wife in East Anglia, and Anders Larsen, a museum curator in Denmark. They are both mature adults with grown children who find companionship with each other that is lacking in their own lives.
The set-up,”how this begins,” is surprising and worth remembering. When Tina was a schoolgirl, she and her fellow students expressed interest to Professor P. V. Glob in Denmark (an actual person) about the Tollund Man, a body discovered in 1950 in a peat bog from the 5th century B.C. The professor wrote The Bog People about him and purportedly wrote a response for children the age of the fictional Tina who had written to him with questions. Now 50 years later Tina writes to him again with more questions about the direction her own life had taken. Professor Glob was long dead, but Anders Larsen took up the correspondence. The Tollund Man has an evocative face, as you can see in the Wikipedia article that moved Seamus Haney to write a poem about him.
The Tollund Man remains a focal point in their connection only in that each correspondent occasionally mentions a visit to Anders’ museum that houses the Tollund Man. Tina finds some pleasure in the life she led, raising three children, working hard on the farm, but is now reflecting that this was not a life she would have chosen. It was a pregnancy that tied her to this life and it was her husband’s farm that was the center of his life. He cared for her insofar as she was a very competent member of the team that made this a successful undertaking.
Anders reveals the sadness of his life; his wife had such a problematic childhood that he always worried about her, as did her children. She had died before the correspondence began but it took time before Anders could write about her. He says she was suited to be alone and that Anders and their children were not real to her. He says, “She played the game of Happy Families with us, but we were toys, props to help her pretend to be like us.” This hit home because most of us understand at some moments that we are acting out parts and sometimes we are uncertain of our lines.
Through their letters over the course of several years, Tina and Anders celebrated the beauty in the world that they enjoyed, shared their thoughts about the life they found themselves in, and consoled each other in painful times. The end is satisfying, if predictable.
Anne Youngson, Meet Me at the Museum, Flatiron Books, 2018, 272 pages (I listened to the audiobook). Available at the public library.