I could not have guessed how much I would enjoy this book:
The Museum of Intangible Things by Wendy Wunder
Hannah and Zoe are lifelong best friends struggling to find a way out of their rural New Jersey town, part of that invisible population of poor white kids. There will be no affirmative action or diversity scholarships, so Zoe works on her fashion designs as she keeps Hannah company eavesdropping on private-school classes and shilling hot dogs for tuition. Crashing a rich-kid party starts a chain of events that leads to Zoe and Hannah leaving town on a spontaneous road trip, Thelma and Louise-style. The two make their way across the country committing crimes and practicing intangible qualities, running from their parents and the law as they barrel toward an explosive finale that promises to give them everything they need or destroy them altogether.
Wow. What a book. A few months ago I “tested a test” for prospective teachers, and was rewarded with $150 in vouchers for books from Penguin. This was the last book I bought, an impulse purchase for fun that was almost deleted from my cart at the last moment. Fate must have been whispering in my ear, because this was a book for me. Two smart, complicated heroines with very real problems and different personalities who still see the value in each other. What drew me in initially were the fantastic title and the premise of a road trip. I love road trips in life and fiction, and the one in the novel does not disappoint. We experience the novel from Hannah’s point of view, and what at first appears to be a wild, unexpected journey is eventually revealed to be planned to the point of inevitable.
Each chapter, rather than being numbered, is headed with an intangible quality like loyalty, insouciance, or audacity. These both reference the titular museum, created by Zoe for her autistic younger brother to help him learn to relate to others emotionally, and the theme of events in that chapter. In the first couple of chapters I thought I had a grip on the kind of character Zoe was, and that idea was blown to bits by novel’s end. The whole narrative arc is a good metaphor for adolescence itself: many older teens feel they have a grip on the world, maybe even know “everything,” but once they actually leave the nest they realize nothing is what they thought it was and they have more power over their lives than they ever imagined.
The Museum of Intangible Things explores a lot of heavy topics, and it offers one of the most interesting perspectives on mental illness I’ve ever read. Maybe the most interesting. It is through the loving lens of Hannah that the reader is gradually exposed to Zoe’s full truth, and Hannah’s internal struggle mirrored my own as I tangled with what is real in such a situation.
Whether the ending of this book is tragic, satisfying, realistic, or a bit of magical realism is entirely dependent on who you are as a reader. My only complaint is that there is an epilogue à la Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, wrapping things up that would have been better left open to speculation. It stole some of the novel’s impact, and seemed more like the author’s bid to make a few final thesis statements on life than something that served the story. That said, I cannot wait to get my hands on Wunder’s other book, The Probability of Miracles.
In case I didn’t get my point across: READ THIS BOOK! If you’ve already read it, tell me what you thought in the comments.