I blame Oprah. The glorification of self-improvement and the importance of personal confession–when perhaps these might be better left to an intimate conversation–have invaded the lives of everyone. Every once in a while, I go wrong in finding travel literature for the road. That certainly is the case for Traveling with Pomegranates, a memoir by Sue Monk Kidd and her daughter, novice writer, Ann Kidd Taylor. The book made it onto the list–even though it’s set not only in France but also in Greece and Turkey–because I thoroughly enjoyed Kidd’s novel The Secret Lives of Bees, particularly the wisdom espoused by one of the characters, August Boatwright.
Although descriptions of various cultural sites are included in the narrative, primacy is given to the self reflection of Kidd (who is going through a “I’m-turning-50” crisis) and of her daughter Taylor, who is in depression over a rejection from graduate school. It’s helpful to know that Kidd spent seven years in Jungian analysis, which explains phrases such as “regenerative essence.” Demeter and Persephone are key characters in this memoir, and Kidd and Taylor re-imagine themselves in those roles. Their time in France centers on sites appealing to a feminist women’s groups in search of their inner selves: The Garden of Venus at Baud, a “birth channel-like” Tumulus at Gavrinis in Brittany, the Chapel of the Black Virgin at Rocamadour, and a convent at Le Puy-en-Velay.
Much of the narrative is given over to the angst of the two women, what I tend to think of as navel gazing. The New Age jargon wears. This is not the only “travel” book that is truly not about travel. The other major sinner in this category is Elizabeth Gilbert‘s popular Eat, Pray, Love. I deliberately left it off my list when visiting Bali in 2010, but then I was asked so often about it, that I finally caved and read it. Where is Maxwell Perkins when you need him? A good editor is worth his or her weight in gold. (I had the same sense with Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver, and Rowling’s later Harry Potter novels–a good editor would have made these much stronger works.) Self indulgent. The Balinese t-shirts perhaps say it best: “Eat, Pay, Leave.”
As I thought about writing this particular blog entry, aware that these two books might well be others’ favorites, I pondered why I had such a visceral reaction to each of them. I’m a fan, for instance, of women’s writings, such as Carolyn Heilbrun‘s Writing A Woman’s Life or her The Gift of Life, which, by the way, talks about the wonderful freedom of turning 50. (An aside: the late Heilbrun was also Amanda Cross, her pseudonym for writing delicious academic mysteries such as Death in a Tenured Position.) But those books were clearly marked as philosophical explorations in women’s writings. Not as travel literature.
Likewise, I’m well aware that travel may often be about self-discovery. Huck Finn came to understand that “I cannot tell a lie” through his journey with Jim. Likewise, Tom Jones, Peregrine Pickle, and Pippin all undertake journeys in order to find meaning and significance in their lives–in the tradition of the bildungsroman in which a young person “finds” himself or builds character. What is the difference? Perhaps it’s the interaction with others rather than the interior monologues that tend to be so personal and intimate. As August Boatwright says in Kidd’s novel, “Most people don’t have any idea about the complicated life going on inside a hive. Bees have a secret life we don’t know anything about.”
And, there are aspects of other people’s lives that I would prefer not to know about. I like my travel literature to be about travel.