Metropolitan Stories by Christine Coulson
Published by Other Press (NY)
Publication date: October 8, 2019
Genres: Book Clubs, Debut, Fiction, Humor, Short Stories
Regardless of where you live, if you love the art and artifacts of human history, then you’re probably familiar with Metropolitan Museum of Art. When I lived in NYC it was one of my favorite places to go and explore. Where you could sit on a bench for as long as you wanted and look at some of the most amazing art in the world. Or stroll through two of my favorites—the Costume Institute and the Temple of Dendur. All of this meant that when I saw that someone had written a novel about the museum, I knew I would have to read it. I’m happy to report that I was as spellbound by Christine Coulson’s Metropolitan Stories as I am by the museum itself.
As a veteran of 25 years at the museum Coulson is uniquely positioned to write about its inner workings. The surprise and delight lie in her ability to make the behind-the-scenes even more exciting and exotic than the exhibits themselves. Metropolitan Stories is a series of fantastical glimpses into moving exhibits, people trapped in time, the foibles of senior management, and even the feelings of the art itself. We meet a 500-year-old sculpture of Adam, that has been waiting for the right moment to move, without considering the consequences of that movement.
These stories are linked via the museum’s employees, from a night guard to the young women of the Development office, known as the Mezz Girls. Even the museum’s director makes an appearance as he sends his staff into a frenzy before a meeting with Karl Lagerfeld. Lagerfeld will be bringing his Muse (a cat) so it’s imperative the director has a Muse as well. A better one. Every single Muse in the museum’s inventory comes forth to audition. As the women pile up one staffer notes to the other,
“The Muses don’t seem to judge, Jamie replied, watching the disorder worsen. “They’re more pushy than judge-y. More demanding, like “Get inspired. Now.” Indeed, there was a kind of amateur urgency among the Muses, a frantic desire to get the job done that made their grace seem simultaneously buoyant and desperate.
This is just one example of the perfectly balanced blend between reality and fantasy that flows through the book, thanks to Coulson’s effervescent imagination. What if a Tintoretto sketch of a woman who was later painted over by the artist himself came to life every morning, threw a uniform over her 450-year-old silhouette, and went to work in the cafeteria? Because she’s lonely and finally wants to be seen. It would be fabulous and it is.
I read a lot of different kinds of fiction, but this is the kind that both soothes and invigorates my reading mind. The humor is irreverent and sharp, the pages hum with intelligent whimsy and imagination. But underneath the clever word play and light jabs is something even better—Coulson’s deep, abiding love for the museum. It shines through this gem of a book. I adored Metropolitan Stories and, whether you’re a museum fan or not, you will too.
This is the dream. To stand before the weight and heft of real things, not reproductions or high-definition scans, but the objects themselves, touched by the artist’s hands, made by human effort, skill, and ambition.
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*I received a free copy of this book from Other Press in exchange for an honest review.*