The Transformation of Travel

For me, there is nothing quite like travel to freshen my perspective, inspire me artistically, and remind me of all the interesting ways and places there are to live. Recently, I’ve read three books in which travel plays (at least) one of these three roles to the main character.

the-lower-riverThe Lower River by Paul Theroux

The pacing of this book was superb. By page 16, we learn that our protagonist, Ellis, longs nostalgically for the time he spent as a young man teaching and building a school in a remote African village. He has spent the years since in a business  and marriage he didn’t care much about. Now, business closed and marriage dissolved, he intends to return to Africa and revisit the village and his youth. He brings along plenty of cash to help out the villagers.

However, the one thing he decides he doesn’t need to take a is a cellphone because the phone had “uncovered his entire private life, shown his as sentimental, flirtatious, dreamy, romantic, unfulfilled, yearning. What did all those emails mean? What in all this emotion was the thing he wanted?” After a series of events leave him the unromantic and all-too-real prisoner (and bank) for the village leader, the bubble bursts, and he sees that his nostalgia has been foolish. It still takes about 300 pages to extract him from his jail without walls — which would’ve taken much less time if he’d brought a cellphone (and not been such an ass).

My notes read: “Theroux gets into the head of men of his generation. Kind of a pathetic creature, out of touch with himself/themselves. I cannot relate to Ellis, but somehow Theroux makes you sympathetic.” I used to love Theroux and have read lots of his fiction and travel writing.  I still think he is a terrific writer (otherwise I’d never have finished this), but I am woefully tired of his untethered, isolated, rather pathetic male characters who can’t have serious relationships with anyone, especially adult women. Unless Theroux gets through this middle-age crisis in his characters, I am going to give future books a pass.

whered-you-go-bernadetteWhere’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple

I don’t think of myself as one for satire, but I got a royal cackle or two out of this novel. Bernadette, a slightly loony but perhaps genius architect/artist, goes missing on a trip to Antartica — a trip that she didn’t even want to take. Told in a series of emails, police reports, and other documents interspersed with her teenage daughter’s narration, Where’d You Go, Bernadette? absolutely skewers the politics and dynamics of PTA moms, offices, and “nice” neighborhoods in white, upper middle-class America. And if you think this kind of weirdness can only happen in fiction, take a look at this series of articles from the LA Times. Luckily, the fiction is funnier, has a happy ending, and champions artists and their eccentric inspirations. Loved this book!

The Far Cry by Emma Smith (Persephone #33)

My third Persephone book arrived and I read it immediately. Set in the 1930s or so (during the Raj), Teresa is an awkward and unloved fourteen year-old living with her aunt in England. Her mother abandoned the family and divorced her Teresa’s father years before, so Teresa was packed off to a school near the aunt where she doesn’t fit in either. Still, when her mother writes that she is returning to see Teresa, Teresa’s father decides that the best way to deal with the situation (that is, escape and thwart)  is to fetch Teresa and take her with him to India where his other adult daughter, Ruth, lives on a tea plantation run by her husband.

Teresa and her father’s journey to Ruth’s home is long and eye-opening. Behind Teresa’s passive exterior is an intelligent and original person, but like an unwatered, neglected hothouse flower, she is unable to show her true colors or potential. It’s finally in India, with it’s dazzling array of unfamiliar customs, people, flora and fauna, that she begins to flourish with curiosity and the sparks of confidence. A series of tragedies (or are they?) leave Teresa a near orphan, but she is also finally able to take a bit of control of her destiny, and find a lifestyle and people that feel like home and family to her.

At first, I wasn’t sure what to make of this novel. On one hand, Smith is too fond of verbs like “cried” and “screamed,” which got old quickly. Certain characters, particularly Teresa and Ruth, were incredibly nuanced and I wasn’t certain if I appreciated such handling or found it a descriptive failure. Eventually, I decided that it was precisely the complexity and abstraction of their characterization that gave the novel it’s greatest strength. Also, as many have noted, Smith is uncommonly gifted at her descriptions of India. You can easily imagine which passages were lifted from her private travel journals — they are vivid and rich. By the end, I found this novel more interesting than, say, Someone at a Distance by Dorothy Whipple, precisely because the characters were less straightforward. I can imagine rereading The Far Cry and getting even more from it the second or third time around.

The Lower River

Where’d You Go, Bernadette?

The Far Cry 
personal copy


2 thoughts on “The Transformation of Travel

  1. RareBird says:

    It was a purely coincidental that I read these three (almost) in a row, but I love it when books make a larger connection for me. I just saw a NYT review of Maria Semple’s new one! Another one on the TBR.


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