Peking to Paris: Life and Love on a Short Drive Around Half the World
“. . . an adventurous woman, willing herself to . . . push up against the outer boundaries of her comfort zone. . . . many comedic observations.”
Dina Bennett is prone to carsickness and has trouble following directions requiring more than one turn. So naturally she agrees to accompany her husband, the mechanically inclined Frenchman Bernard, as his navigator on an 8,000 automobile rally from Peking to Paris driving a restored 1940 Cadillac LaSalle they’ve named Roxanne.
The rally commemorates the centennial of the original race that took place in 1907. Dina’s and Bernard’s personalities are different; his goal is to go for a gold medal while she is content to finish in one piece, no matter their ranking. This conflict colors each of their approaches to the race. He wants to charge ahead at full speed, while she would rather detour to dusty villages and meet with locals.
Initially, Bernard’s desire carries the day. They race ahead with nary a chance to experience the culture of the places they are driving through. But eventually Roxanne protests the pace and starts to fall apart, eventually she’s trucked to one night’s stop for a major repair. Once they are out of the medal hunt, the couple can relax and enjoy the ride; Bernard stifling his competitive instincts.
Dina and Bernard are an engaging couple who lean on each other for strength. As Roxanne submits to the rigors of the road, continually breaking down, what could cause stress in their relationship binds them together even more strongly. After a particularly rough day, “With his free hand he covers mine and we drive on like that, his left hand on the steering wheel, my right hand on the route book, our two hands together in between.”
While the author professes to be a girly-girl more interested in “the time of my next pedicure appointment,” beneath those lacquered nails stands an adventurous woman, willing herself to overcome her fears and push up against the outer boundaries of her comfort zone. Ms. Bennett draws heavily from the well of her interest in creature comforts—a source of many comedic observations.
Peking to Paris is not as much about the places visited as it is about the people visiting them. A quirky set of characters are introduced who inhabit the rarefied financial milieu of high-stakes road rallies, some more likeable than others—including the enigmatic James, reputedly the wealthiest man in the rally, who possesses the means to fly spare auto parts into remote sections of Siberia.
Much of the early part of the book is taken up with backstory about Dina and Bernard and their preparations for the rally, particularly getting Roxanne into shape for the road. The race itself doesn’t start until page 71 when they depart Beijing. Like many a road trip, the narrative loses steam a bit toward the end. The book reaches its final destination in two brief chapters.
As the miles roll by, Ms. Bennett is pretty much limited to observing whatever is within eyeshot of their vehicle, only able to dip into the shallow end of the local culture. The nightly pit stops take on a certain sameness as drivers meet for dinner and discuss the day’s events and near disasters. Fortunately, Ms. Bennett is such a gifted writer that she takes what could be the monotony of driving across the Gobi Desert and molds it into an entertaining tale.
At one point, as they’re motoring across a particularly desolate area of Mongolia she observes, “It’s a derelict and uninviting place . . . I search the landscape for highlights I can memorize, in case I need to make my way back there on foot if Roxanne collapses for good. All I see are sand, gravel, rocks, and shrubs, none of which is a likely candidate for landmark of the month.”
Ms. Bennett is well aware of what she is missing out on by adhering to a rigid schedule. About two-thirds of the way in she observes, “this trip is all about driving and not about the journey.” She laments that she’s missed out on “those magical meetings or impromptu conversations that make a journey rich and rewarding.”
While Ms. Bennett regrets missing out on the journey, readers get to share her personal journey as the miles rolling by peel her out of her shell. She overcomes the innate shyness dating back to her high school days as a wallflower to mingle with the other rally contestants—a hard charging bunch.
She observes that there are always three people in Roxanne: her, Bernard, and her own insecurities. As the rally progresses to the finish line, those insecurities disappear out her rolled down window. She even realizes that she no longer gets carsick.
Ms. Bennett has embarked on several epic road trips around the world since this book was written. Since they weren’t part of an organized rally, she and Bernard traveled at their own pace, absorbing the atmosphere and culture of the countries they visited. Given Ms. Bennett’s observant writing style, readers should anticipate further entertaining travel narratives from the author.