This review is going to be quite a bit different from what I expected after eleven of the thirteen chapters this book comprises…
Let’s start at another angle, though: I like to read what one of the greatest of the genre, Tony James Slater, likes to call “travel memoirs”. If written by the right person, they’re often funny, interesting and, at times, even insightful and inspiring. Unsurprisingly, they often include “romantic encounters” of a very intimate nature or – as Newman’s mother is quoted “Grown-ups don’t just hold hands.”.
I went into this book expecting amusing anecdotes of female solo travel – a travel memoir. What I got to read was very, very different because the twenty-ish Kristian Newman listens to her boyfriend’s voicemail and reads his diary of all things…
When she writes about Lesbian relationships that a »social scientist might argue that the girl-on-girl trend started with rave culture … and Ecstasy.« I found myself taking a note that reads “And someone with a brain might disagree”.
On her first trip to Russia, she finds herself at a dinner among Russians and, not speaking Russian, she finds that being unable to express herself, she completely relaxes. Newman doesn’t shy away from putting her xenophobia into words that she defends by stating that her friend Sasha, who emigrated from Russia at the age of three to go to America, and, thus, for all intents and purposes (apart from becoming president) is as American as Newman herself was actually »first to note that, so it’s more about self-loathing than xenophobia«:
»A side note about Russian women: good God are they hot when they are eighteen. The girls in this club were all legs and cheekbones, pouty lips and exquisite big eyes. But, quite tragically, every woman over forty in Russia looks like a tiny, shriveled, ancient little gnome. That cold, pessimistic, vodka-and-cigarette-filled, fresh-vegetable-free life is hard—it drives over women’s faces like a Soviet tank. Now that Sasha is a fantastic-looking forty, I can tell you it is not the genes, it is the life.«
And this is how the book goes on for a much-longer feeling eleven chapters. Newman runs away from what she calls “the Void”. She’s fleeing true intimacy whenever it rears its – for her – frightening head and travels to some “exotic” locale at which she immediately proceeds to have sex with any available guy.
Now, don’t get me wrong: I have no beef whatsoever with that but, unfortunately, the actual travel stories not only take a backseat compared to her sex stories but the travel part is pretty much non-existent. Even that could have been ok if the writing and the sex stories had been funny. Sadly, they weren’t.
Plus: The more I read of these escapades the sadder I felt for Newman: Not only was she having completely meaningless sex to try and fill the void in her life, she is immensely egocentric, crying at her friend’s wedding because said friend wouldn’t be exclusively available as a travel partner anymore:
»I wept at losing my single buddy. Not those emotional, joyful, smiley wedding tears you shed because you’re so happy. Big, heaving sobs of genuine grief sprang out of me as I stood under the chuppah, watching a person who felt like a piece of myself walk toward me, while somehow really walking away.«
“Genuine grief” because someone she calls a friend marries and, thus, inconveniences her…
Newman is judgemental as can be; about one of her travel companions she pretentiously writes…
»Before I launch into what was wrong with Sally,«
… as if Newman herself was the measure of how travelling should be…
» [I] probably should say that this is what makes you a good traveler in my opinion, but deep down I really think this is just universal, incontrovertible truth.”
Newman owns the “universal, incontrovertible truth” – even if that was meant to be sarcastic, the entire book makes this one sentence universally, incontrovertibly ring true.
Almost all over the place, Newman is ignorance impersonated…
»We were seated with a group of six people from Mauritius, which, it turns out, is an island nation in the Indian Ocean, about twelve hundred miles east of Africa.«
… interspersed with racial condescension…
»The country is a mix of Indian, African, and French descendants, and if this little table of gorgeously colored people was any indication, the mix is a good one.«
… that is only ever rivalled by the condescending title – “Breeding”… What a word when applied to human beings, friends of the author’s even.
Meanderingly, Newman tells us clumsily about her ancestors…
»So it was my maternal line’s wandering, ambivalent soul that made its way to me. And at thirty-one, I had one regret in my life: I had never lived in another country. I decided to dodge depression and the dates my friends were finding me on the Internet by spending this last job-hunt-free hiatus pretending that I lived in another country for a few months.«
… and she’s going to fulfill her life’s dream to live abroad, among the common people. Lacking the practical skills and common sense to actually do so, she does the next best thing: She pretends to.
Newman desperately tries to be funny or at least provoking in order to get noticed:
»The nice thing about a gay club is there is no possible way to be the sluttiest person in the room.«
Either she really means that or she thinks she’s being funny. I’m not sure what I find more disturbing.
At one point, Newman really seems to find love: In Argentine, Newman meets an almost-priest who she promptly calls “Father Juan”. Juan is one of the few guys Newman seems to let come close and when she talks about Juan, you feel for once real warmth and true feelings. Which Newman immediately destroys:
»And I met a lot of other Juans.«
Tragically for her, she doesn’t. In fact, whenever she gets to take a breath – from her work as a comedy writer for television or travelling, her thoughts and her loneliness are creeping up on Newman:
»Well, hello, Void! How’d you find me way down here?! And so I asked out my Spanish teacher.«
As you can see, her answer is always the same. It’s not only the dim-witted local whom Newman seduces but it’s much less “tiresome”…
»So I would trill at cocktail parties how I loved romance abroad because I could abandon my tiresome Stateside need for quick-wittedness in a mate.«
… no, it’s her supposed friends as well. When a travelling companion, a friend of Newman’s falls ill abroad, these are her first thoughts we learn about:
»It’s hard to talk about exactly how disappointed I was about this, because it rightly makes me sound like a selfish monster. But I was. The trip was already not perfect.«
Ultimately, she gets help:
»Another thing happened in 2007: I went back to therapy, and started taking antidepressants.«
Meanwhile, Kristin Newman has told us all of the above plus how she was a stalker, in an imaginary romantic relationship, how she actively sabotages her relationships and how entitled she is (»My life was starting to become what it was supposed to be.«). Ironically, after all this ignorance, willfully hurting people and – in hindsight, it seems – regretting it. After having been a horrible friend, in the last two chapters (and the epilogue) – those chapters that most people who liked this book did not like – in those last two chapters, Newman grows and “gets over herself” as another reviewer puts it.
We finally get to know that she knows her obsessive travelling, the random sex was actually running away and the experiences kind of… cathartic… for Newman.
Nevertheless, Newman stays Newman and her comments on the horrible death of her stepmother – culminating in »Ding-dong« – sound just like the younger her.
Thus, Kristin Newman, promising a travel memoir, delivers anecdotes about sex in exotic places and tries to be funny, knowing full well…
»But my story wasn’t ultimately a sad story«
… but still mostly so.
All the more reason to wish her and her family best of luck!