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The Archivistby Martha Cooley
Synopses & Reviews
Matthias is a man of orderly ways, a librarian whose life rarely strays from its narrow channels. At the library where he works is an archive of letters from the poet T. S. Eliot to an American woman, written during the years Eliot was undertaking Four Quartets and wrestling with problems of marriage an of faith. When a young poet, Roberta, comes to the library wanting to see the letters — sealed from public view until the year 2020 — she unsettles Matthias's composure and brings back long-buried memories of a disastrous relationship years earlier.
Matthias's marriage to Judith in the years following World War II forms the core of this beautifully observed and emotionally charged novel. Despite their differences — Judith is unruly, an artist — their shared love of poetry and jazz at first lends strength to their bond. But their good intentions cannot bridge their essential divergences. A growing alienation is complicated by Judith's increasingly erratic behavior, which culminates in a severe breakdown and her incarceration in a mental hospital.
Judith's own voice, in the form of a journal she kept in the hospital, is the transfixing middle passage of this novel. The journal opens onto the psyche of a woman haunted by questions about love's worth in a world filled with war's evils. Her preoccupation with revelations about the real nature not only of Europe's darkness but also of her family's brings her to the point of unraveling. As Matthias wrestles with of Roberta's wishes, his own reawakened longings, and his memories, he is forced to reconsider his role in his wife's death. After years of carefully tended caution, he realizes that he must acknowledge emotion as much as logic. This time, the result is an act of rebellion intended as reparation — and a provocative disruption of our own ideas about debts to the dead.
Drawing richly upon the poems of T.S. Eliot and the intellectual and social climate of postwar New York City, this is an unforgettable novel about memory and desire. Written with an assurance and power only rarely seen in a first novel, it heralds the arrival of a new writer with a brilliant future.
"A superlative, serious, gripping literary treasure." Kirkus Reviews
"The Archivist is a rare achievement in contemporary fiction: a work of real intelligence, depth, and moral weight. Martha Cooley is much to be admired for her graceful prose and her ingenuity as a storyteller, but all the more for this novel's serious engagement with some of the largest issues of the modern world." Madison Smartt Bell
"Reading The Archivist is not unlike opening a delicious trick present — a box within a box within a box, finally revealing tantalizing secrets hidden not only from the reader but in the case of this rich and engaging first novel also from the archivist himself. An intricate and compelling tale of the way in which guilt and passion may quickly unravel the inner life of an orderly man. The Archivist marks an impressive debut." Anita Shreve
"Engrossing." Entertainment Weekly
"Compelling." Boston Globe
"The Archivist is a romance and a novel of ideas....A deeply symbolic story about privacy and memory." BookPage
"[A] thoughtful and well-written first novel, suffused withintellectual and moral integrity." Brian Morton, The New York Times Book Review
"It is rare and gratifying to read a novel about people who take literature seriously, who practically live and die by books....The Archivist is a memorable achievement." Steven Moore, Washington Post Book World
"A literary detective story — beautifully paced and gripping....An impressive debut." Christina Patterson, The Observer (London)
Locked away the archivist carefully guards, along with his own emotions, a series of letters sealed until 2020. The letters were T.S. Eliot's, written to American Emily Hale as he negotiated the paradoxes of marriage and faith. Matthias, the orderly librarian that keeps the letters, is confronted by a persistent undergraduate poet in search of answers that the letters may provide for her own life. Matthias discovers his own parallels to Eliot's letters as they stir memories of his marriage to his chaotic, artistic poet wife Judith. Before Judith's suicide, the two were attracted and repelled by their differences.
The fact that Judith grew increasingly and irreparably unhinged actually becomes, with undergraduate Roberta's focus on Eliot's letters, the impetus for Matthias to deal with his own emotional nature. The juxtaposition of characters and situational parallels in Martha Cooley's debut novel provide for insightful meditation on the nature of poetry and on the complementary nature of human opposites. Cooley's subtle and assured writing style, rare in first books, has earned the new author considerable praise from literary critics.
About the Author
Martha Cooley is an assistant professor of English at Adelphi University and teaches fiction in Bennington College's MFA program. She lives in Brooklyn.
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