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“Like our protagonist, we hope to soar to new heights, to conquer our fears, to land where we belong. In the process, we are gifted with a good read that some might argue could be quite a few pages shorter while still telling a fine and very funny story.”
Pam Houston’s intelligent, entertainingly quirky, and slightly too long new book is a mélange of Eat, Pray, Love dipped in 1,000 Places to See Before You Die and sprinkled with another of Ms. Houston’s delightful books, Cowboys Are My Weakness.
Lacking a clear plot line, Ms. Houston cobbles together a string of travel vignettes to tell the story of her wandering protagonist, who is . . . hmmmm . . . a writer named Pam.
Armchair travelers will rejoice in her lively descriptions of venues as diverse as Drigung, Tibet and Denver, Colorado, all of which she has clearly visited. Real travelers might want to avoid reading the few passages having to do with potential flight disasters, especially if they are on an airplane while reading the book. Others may wish she’d get to the point a bit faster and with just a little less charming observation on the human condition.
Ostensibly on a spiritual journey, Pam (the character) is clearly on a frenetic journey to come to grips with her past and to find Mr. Right. Along the way she connects with various people, all of who are characters in their own right with strange names like Fenton the human (to distinguish him from Fenton the dog), Sofree, and Practical Kate. Each of the iconic, and possibly archetypal, characters whose paths cross hers help Pam (the character) in their own way while helping Pam (the writer) shape her narrative.
Pam Houston can be wickedly funny and she is an astute observer of human behavior. Take this for funny: “If a thirty-seven-year-old woman swears that the rhythm method has always worked perfectly for her, everybody in the theater knows what happens next.”
And this for wise: “I’m beginning to understand that when we want to kill ourselves, it is not because we are lonely, but because we are trying to break up with the world before the world breaks up with us.”
And funny and wise simultaneously: “Here’s the thing about jealousy: it eats your heart from the inside out and makes you so unlikeable even the dogs get skeptical.”
Character Pam is a once-married woman in her forties who teaches writing, which is presumably how she manages to never be home. She is always on some workshop gig or other and when she’s not, she’s on vacation, often in the early part of the story with Ethan, the he’s-no-good-for-you boyfriend who is succeeded by Rick. Rick is loveable if irritating at times and he has a terrific daughter, Madison, who digs Pam. (Sofree is Madison’s mom.) Together the three of them find their way home, metaphorically and physically.
By the denouement, Pam is able to say “when you are in the good company of a man who loves Don DeLillo and the NHL, of a girl who needs you to teach her to dive and to laugh at herself, of two dogs who sing for their supper and two sweet ancient horses who lie down every morning to soak up the sun, staying home becomes more of an option. Maybe.”
It is that kind of risk-taking, and growing trust in herself and others, that makes Pam a likable character with whom you could easily imagine hanging out. In Ms. Houston’s capable hands she teaches us to be brave, to stretch ourselves—laughing when we fall down and cheering when we stand back up—and to love life with all its pitfalls, proud moments, and beautiful places.
Like our protagonist, we hope to soar to new heights, to conquer our fears, to land where we belong. In the process, we are gifted with a good read that some might argue could be quite a few pages shorter while still telling a fine and very funny story.