Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Without Reservations and Educating Alice

I spent a fine weekend traipsing about Philadelphia. I walked a lot and rode in airplanes, vans, taxis, a horse-drawn carriage, and on the top of a double-decker tour bus. I saw the historical district, Chinatown, the art museum (with the famous Rocky-training steps), the Rodin museum, Rittenhouse Square, and a little of South Street--Walker and I went down there when one of his chess games had ended early, and got cheesesteaks at Jim's Steaks. We stood in line next to a family from Baltimore who drove up specially. Perhaps I'm not enough of a carnivore, or perhaps I don't know the best way to order one, but once was enough for me.

The books I took along on the trip were about a woman traveling alone, an apt subject, I thought, since most of my sightseeing would be done alone while Walker played chess. Perhaps I read them in the wrong order; I saw that Without Reservations was published in 2000 and Educating Alice in 2004, so I began with the earlier one. And it thoroughly ticked me off.

First of all, I don't see anything particularly admirable about traveling alone, unless you're an old lady who was brought up thinking that you needed a man to fill your gas tank and hail taxis for you. The main difficulty, it seems to me, would be getting sick alone in a strange city. Well, that's not a problem for the extremely friendly Alice--some women she's known less than a week pitch in to change her sheets and bring her glasses of water. Why people are willing to go to such lengths for her isn't clear to me, despite her obvious enthusiasm for chatting with total strangers. Often she does bother to learn their names, unlike the man she meets in Paris whose cat is named Jacques and who she refers to for an entire month's-long visit as "Monsieur Jacques."

What Alice calls "wickedly funny" leaves me cold, like the story about her friend Susan who said "You know what can age you twenty years overnight....If all your friends got face-lifts the day before." Again, maybe this is funny only if you're an old lady. I know (from the highlighted sentences in my used copy) that a recently separated or divorced woman can identify with Alice, but I found her search for her "own independent identity" pathetic in the post-hippie world, especially in light of how much of the book is taken up with her infatuation with an old Japanese man she falls for in the course of her travels.

In the light of my own recent brush with the death of ambition and the recommendation I got for Steinbach's other book (The Miss Dennis School of Writing), I was prepared to receive some insight from her about "how your expectations change when you move into your fifties: about work, about love, and about a future that didn't seem as endless as it once did." When she ponders, though, she doesn't provide any insight into whether a person should aim at "personal achievement? Contentment? Wisdom? Retirement?" but decides that the greatest of these is hope for a romantic relationship with the old Japanese man. Way to dash my hopes, Alice.

What Alice thinks of as profound is to use a small girl on a tricycle to metaphorically describe the joys of being independent:
"every few minutes, after a burst of high-energy pedaling, the girl would lift both hands from the handlebars, put her arms out to either side, and allow the bike to steer itself. As she did this, she made whooping noises of unleashed exhileration.
Aha! I thought, a fearless woman in the making. But then the bike suddenly swerved into a large pot of red geraniums and the girl tumbled off. Immediately, however, she picked herself up, righted the bike, and somewhat more cautiously pedaled on.
Life's like that, I thought, as I turned the corner to my building. Freedom has its dangers as well as its joys. And the sooner we learn to get up after a fall, the better off we'll be."
By the time Alice finishes describing herself as a person who is "plucky and, most of the time, not a whiner. Except for the occasional and sometimes expensive preoccupation about what to do with her not-so-manageable hair, I found her quite an agreeable traveling companion," I don't even need to stick a finger down my throat; I'm already gagging.

So I went into the second book with a negative attitude, skimming through it only because a friend of mine lent it to me, saying she'd enjoyed it. And it was better. Better written, less facile, less selfish (this is a woman who claims to love cats but who left hers for a year to traipse about Europe), and with less about the Japanese lover. She asks a few interesting questions, like "What if one day someone suddenly asked if you would like a courtesy upgrade to a first-class life, including an apartment in Paris, a house in Tuscany, a loft in Tribeca, and a private jet to ferry you back and forth?" But she doesn't answer them. She continues to be so desperate for company that she imagines friends and relatives from her childhood visiting the sights along with her.

In some sections, she takes a disingenuous approach to the writing, pretending that she didn't know why a young woman from Havana couldn't come into her hotel lobby to meet her and telling a long story about how she came to write a fiction piece for a writing workshop, as if that would make the finished fragment (included, naturally) matter more to the reader.

Even Alice's list of favorite writers doesn't include anyone I particularly admire, with the exception of a children's writer. And the things she takes lessons in--cooking, gardening, Japanese tea ceremony, workshopping, border collie training--are not things I'm much interested in.

Perhaps for someone interested in some of those things--particularly gardening--and someone who began with Educating Alice, rather than the prequel to it, this could be a good armchair traveler book. But not for me; I think most women under sixty are capable of starting out where Steinbach leaves off.

Have you been to the movies lately or read one of the many books about baby boomer women celebrating "finding themselves"? Does it irritate you, too, or is it just me being unappreciative? These are the women, after all, who fought the women's lib battles from which I benefit; I wouldn't be as snide about their attitudes if a woman's lot hadn't improved since their day.


Nymeth said...

Possibly I'm being unappreciative too, but I laughed out loud at the tricycle passage :P

Seriously now, I'm happy that these women are beginning to realise they in fact can do things on their own, have their own interests, and enjoy life. But that doesn't necessarily mean I'll want to read a book about it, especially if said interests don't match mine.

Aarti said...

Like Ana, the tricycle thing seems a bizarre comparison.

I DO think it's great when women travel alone. I think it's more for safety issues than anything else, though. I have traveled a lot, but I always get a little worried walking alone at night or going into a bar on my own.

It's interesting THIS author wrote about traveling alone when so starved for company, though. I would think if she wanted to travel with people, she'd invite them along...

Avid Reader said...

Hilarious. I agree that these "I am woman, hear me whine" memoirs are getting old. When I read Eat, Pray, Love I wanted to smack the author.
I've traveled alone a lot and it's wonderful. But I don't want to read 250 pages of someone patting themselves on the back about it. I'd rather hear about the people they met and things they experienced.

Anonymous said...

These sound genuinely terrible. I have a book on the floor of my car about a woman who rowed a boat alone down the Nile. I can't remember the title, but I think it's a better book. And I've liked books by Sara Wheeler -- like Travels in a Thin Country. I think it's probably a bit hard for anyone to travel alone, actually. But that's kind of a given and we don't need tricycle analogies. Hmph.

Trapunto said...

Anyone who uses the word "plucky" to refer to *herself* doesn't get to live on my island.

I often get annoyed at self-discovery chronicles by complacent upper-middles (I meant class, then I realized it could apply to middle age), but not just when they have to do with women and travel. I had to get rid of a travel book about a couple of guys that my friend gave me because it was making me a mean, mean person. Sort of a sentimental buddy movie of a book.

I spent many months traveling by myself. Travel is great, but the reason to do it is not to discover yourself, it's to discover things that aren't you! I read the Amazon summary of Educating Alice where it says Steinbach was inspired by the line,"To learn of the pine, go to the pine," and yet she seems to be more of the "Go to the pine, to yak of the pine" persuasion.

Jenny said...

I am totally hung up on the thing of people going to great lengths to help her. My younger sister's life is like that, and I'm SO envious. Wherever she goes, kindly people take her under their wing and mind her and do things for her. It is quite uncanny. Not one of the perks life has provided to me. :P

CSchu said...

I have to confess that I am the one who put Jeanne up to these books. Sorry they didn't work for you, Jeanne. Needless to say, I didn't react the way you did. I found her to be a much more interesting person than you did. And I didn't find her to be quite to self-congratulatory, though there was some of that.... I also liked a lot of the adventures she found on her travels. I liked her willingness to seize moments and opportunities along the way. And, as we discussed, I kind of admired her ability to enjoy the trips on her own, something that I would like to be able to do, but probably can't. I'm too impatient, too anxious to share the moment with someone else.

Jeanne said...

Nymeth, I spent a few minutes trying to figure out if I'm really that uninterested in gardening, or if it's just the way she talked about it.

Aarti, You're right; I don't like to go out alone at night. But I mostly don't like to go out at night, so it doesn't bother me that much! I've always been the kind of introvert who craves a little time alone by the end of the day.

Avid Reader, I was hoping for more about the things she experienced, especially in Paris, where no one ever feels they've uncovered very many of the secret pleasures available.

Readersguide, I really don't think the tricycle passage was unfairly singled out. Be glad I didn't inflict the postcards she wrote to herself on you!

Trapunto, she is complacent to the point of smug, the kind of complacent where you have no idea.

On the other hand, I feel a little guilty about how irritated I am by her use of Japanese sayings, like the one you quote. There probably is a deep and beautiful way to think about some of them, but she simplifies them to the point of absurdity.

Jenny, It must be charisma. I'm almost certain Alice is more interesting in person; she does seem genuinely interested in other people.

CSchu, You like the way she seizes opportunities--but you would pass up some of the opportunities she seizes because you would need someone to share those moments with spontaneously?

It really does sound like a cell phone that lets you send photos would help with the need to share what you're experiencing.