The Museum of Intangible Things is the second young adult novel by author Wendy Wunder. The novel follows best friends Hannah and Zoe, two teens living in a small New Jersey town divided neatly between the seemingly perfect haves and the desperate have nots. Both Hannah and Zoe are on the wrong end of this divide, and their desperation is palpable. Finding herself in need of an escape, Zoe convinces Hannah that they should go on a road trip together, and most of the story takes place on the road.
When first looking at this novel, it seems to promise a fun, lighthearted tale of two friends taking a road trip and finding themselves. Everything from the brightly-colored cover to the summary on the inside flap supports this idea. But the book does not deliver on this promise. It is unquestionably dark at times, and while Hannah and Zoe do take a road trip of self-discovery, it’s more erratic and dangerous than spontaneous and fun.
The reader finds out within the first few pages that Zoe is mentally ill, which is the first indication that this novel is not the lighthearted ride it appears to be. The road trip is not so much a youthful adventure as it is a way for Zoe to outrun her demons. While there are a lot of lighthearted, touching moments between the two girls, there is also a lot of tension and darkness, mostly centered around Zoe and her increasingly distressing behavior. Throughout the novel, it becomes clear that Hannah is in way over her head. The girls have a very strong bond, and so at many times Hannah is blinded by this bond and makes very inappropriate choices about how to treat Zoe. One thing that Wunder does well in this novel is showing how deep the bonds of friendship can run, especially when you are young. While in this case those bonds sometimes lead to destructive behavior, the friendship between Hannah and Zoe comes off as very real.
Wunder also does a good job of capturing what it can feel like to be a teenager, especially one who feels as trapped as Hannah and Zoe. The emotions of these characters are shown as important and valid, from Hannah’s affections for Danny, a boy from school, to Zoe’s anger at not getting into the colleges she wanted. Part of what separates a good young adult novel from the rest is having those strong emotions come across on the page, and this is something that Wunder, for the most part, accomplishes.
Ultimately, though, The Museum of Intangible Things is a novel that is trying to be too much. It wants to be a fun-and-adventurous road trip book, but it also wants to look at the dark side of mental illness, but it also seems to want to dip into realm of magical realism at times, and it wants to be a coming-of-age novel and it wants to be a novel about Girl Power and female friendships. And while it is not necessarily impossible for a single novel to be all of these things, this particular novel falls short. The road trip is secondary to the girls’ spiraling situation, and there are too many little details and loose ends that weren’t properly addressed.
There is also a certain carelessness to the way Zoe’s mental illness is presented. From the way she is so thoroughly failed by those around her, to the way her illness is, at times, presented in this almost magical light, as if it allows her to, in Hannah’s words, be “more alive” than everyone else. People who have mental illnesses are often misunderstood or failed by the system, yes, but to write a mentally ill character as if they are this magical being operating in some elevated plane of existence is not only careless but dangerous.
Then there is the climactic scene of the novel, which is rushed, and which isn’t really explored enough at the end. The decisions that Hannah and Zoe make throughout the novel ultimately have consequences, but these consequences are not given the amount of reflection time that they deserve.
For me, I think, the biggest issue is that this novel seems to focus more on Hannah’s character living her life in the supposedly more “alive” way that Zoe does, and Zoe’s mental illness is basically used as a prop for Hannah’s personal growth, as if Zoe’s well-being had to be sacrificed for Hannah to find her way, instead of the two of them helping each other to a better place.
While this novel does have its problems, that doesn’t mean I didn’t find it entertaining. It was a quick read, and it wasn’t a wholly unsatisfying story. But if you do decide to pick up this book, know that you aren’t picking up a fun road trip novel, but a much darker—and sometimes poorly handled—tale of mental illness and desperation.