Friday, March 6, 2009
I like travel literature. I think this is because I like to dream, and I like to dream of beautiful places and beautiful experiences, and when I can't actually be the one making those dreams come true, I like to live vicariously.
Without Reservations by Alice Steinbach made it's way onto my shelf at the end of last summer, when I had just come into my own, as it were. I had recently been able to close the final doors on a period that had been rather more painful than most, and I felt like I had come to a new beginning. Life was once more interesting and at times, even exciting. I had begun to formulate plans for a bright future, and so I was in the mood for reading something that reflected that newfound sense of simultaneous peace and expectation.
Without Reservations appealed to me right from the start. When I pulled it out from amongst its companions at Borders, the cover instantly delighted with its picture of a woman in a hat standing on a flower-bedecked balcony attached to a lovely old European building. Opening to the first page, I was immediately drawn in by the warmth of the writing and evocative descriptions:
"I write this sitting in my cozy kitchen on a wintry morning, my old cat dozing beside me on the warm, hissing radiator. An ice storm passed through Baltimore last night, and I can hear the evergreen trees outside my window creaking under the weight of their glazed branches."
And when I turned the page, I found that what this author wrote really resonated with me in my current state of adult infancy.
"In many ways, I was an independent woman. For years I'd made my own choices, paid my own bills, shoveled my own snow. . . . But lately, I'd come to see that no matter how much I was in charge of my finances and my time, I was quite dependent in another way. Over the years I had fallen into the habit. . .of defining myself in terms of who I was to other people and what they expected of me."
This woman had lost her sense of self, and so had I. Like me, she had been making her decisions based on what she knew or thought she knew others expected of her, without reference to her own needs, wishes, or even to what was right. Like me, she had one day woken up and realized that that was silly, and that there were better things to do with life, and so she determined to do something about it, and for my part, I decided I wanted to read about it. So I bought the book, and over these past few months have enjoyed every single moment of my vicarious experience living and traveling in Europe, and watching another woman learn who she is, and what matters in lfe.
Now, at first glance, this might sound like just another tale of empowerment for women, but it is so much more than that. It is a beautiful tribute to some of the world's most wonderful places, such as Paris, Oxford, and Venice, a heartfelt tale of friendship with humanity, with the world, and with oneself, and a repository of insights into the human condition that are by turns witty and poignant.
For instance, her first night in Paris the author decided that "first impressions about hotel rooms are like first loves: neither is based on the concept of how, over time, one can come to appreciate the pleasures of durability over infatuation." Or that same evening, when she stops to think "What if more of life could be. . .like the last slow dance, where, to echo T.S. Eliot, a lifetime burns in every moment."
The style of writing is not especially wordy; the descriptions are not Victorian in length. There is a slight sparseness that relieves the mind of clutter, rather than draining it of feeling. What emerges is a piquancy and effervescence both striking and engaging. "Across the street in the Tuileries I could hear the wind moving through the trees; it made a rustling sound, like that of a woman waltzing in a taffeta dress." Each place has a personality, and sometimes this is made startlingly clear: "If Amalfi were a man, I thought, he'd be dressed by Calvin Klein and reading Tom Clancy. Positano would wear Armani and carry a book by John Le Carre. But if Ravello were a man--ah Ravello!--he would be in chinos and a fresh white oxford shirt with no tie, buried in a book by Graham Greene."
Occasionally, the author takes a moment longer to rest upon an image, as in Perugia: "Through the window I saw the light of dawn rising, a curtain lifting to reveal the day. I opened the shutters and stood looking out for a few minutes before gazing down into the treetops below my room. There, nesting in the upper branches, were dozens of birds. It was an odd perspective, looking down into the nests of birds instead of up. . . Then, as if some secret signal compelled them, they suddenly rose into the air, a graceful white-and-gray squadron. As they lifted off, the branches beneath them swayed slightly and the leaves shivered. The small sound reverberated in the air like a tuning fork as it nears the end of its vibrations."
How truly lovely!
But yes, I titled this post "Without Reservations. . . mostly." At heart, there is something missing, and that of course, as is sadly to be expected in most contemporary writing, is the sense of the religious, the recognition that fundamentally, there is a God, and He has written the story of eternity, in which story each one of us has a unique and meaningful part which tends to a meaningful end. And so in conjunction with this, the author sometimes comes to insufficient conclusions. At other times she finds herself doing things which she doesn't recognize are in any way wrong--fortunately, this is a rare occurrence.
That having been said, I do recommend this book. It isn't a Dickens, and it's not an Austen, but it is lovely. And if you want something light and pleasant that might just surprise you now and again with a little artistry or wisdom, try Without Reservations.