An archive – specifically a collection of T. S. Eliot’s letters – is at the heart of this novel. But it is not about what’s in the letters as much as about the fact that they were written to the ‘other woman’ in Eliot’s life. It is about the archivist, Matt, whose wife, Judith, died in a mental hospital, as did Eliot’s wife, Vivienne. It is about love and betrayal and truth and lies, and the motivations behind them.
Roberta Spire is an Eliot scholar and poet who is trying to persuade Matt to give her access to the letters even though they’re sealed until 2020. There is an immediate connection between them – not physical, really – that causes each to reveal thoughts and secrets never shared before.
There are many parallels in The Archivist. Judith and Roberta are both Jewish and poets; the troubled marriages of Matt and Judith and Eliot and Vivienne; the complexity of Eliot’s relationship with Emily Hale and Matt’s with Roberta. There is much interweaving of themes and actions that keep drawing one further in.
I found myself in sympathy with various characters at different times throughout the book and repelled by them at others. This signals to me a depth of character development that is truly masterful. I dove into this book and didn’t come up for air until its totally surprising conclusion.