Sunday, February 26, 2012

Running Away to Home by Jennifer Wilson

Source of Book: Borrowed from the Library

I am participating in an online book club, hosted by my friend Carrie, who has a popular book blog, Reading to Know. If you want to join in or see what we are reading, the link to that post is here:

Reading to Know - Book Club

Our selection for January was Beyond Opinion, edited by Ravi Zacharias

First, a quick synopsis of the book. Jennifer Wilson is a middle-class, Midwestern, married mother of two. She is also a writer by vocation. Fed up with the rat race, she and her husband plan to spend a year abroad, and live for the entire summer in a small village in Croatia – the one her ancestors left 100 years ago. During their stay, she attempts to get in touch with her roots, simplify her life, and come to some sort of peace with herself. It does not go exactly how she planned, but she learns some things about herself and others.

I want to give a quick explanation before I launch into my screed about book genres.

I enjoyed this book. I think it was mostly well written, and avoided most of the faults of the genre in which it has been cast.

This is a recent book, which means that it was selected for publishing because it met the publisher’s vision for a certain genre. (I’m sorry to be so cynical about this, but genres have become increasingly rigid and niche marketed.) Thus, this book has been written, and probably edited too, to fit into the “exotic escapist trip leading to self discovery” genre, even if the story itself doesn’t quite fit the mold.

Wilson deserves serious credit, in my opinion, for bucking the cardinal rule of this genre, which states that the woman should learn that the main impediment to her happiness is her husband. (See Exhibit A: Eat, Pray, Love; Exhibit B(1), Julie and Julia; and Exhibit B(2), Cleave) Rather, she comes to a greater appreciation of her husband and kids. If anything, she writes quite charitably about her husband.

I do not want to create the impression that I did not enjoy this book, because I did. It is an interesting story, and the characters are memorable. Wilson is admirably introspective in the true sense. She attempts throughout her adventures to be honest about her own faults, and refuses to blame others for them.

This is where I wondered what this book would have been had she been honest with herself at the outset of the trip about what it really was. Wilson, like the typical writer of these stories, is financially blessed. She and her husband, through good jobs and reasonably frugal living, are able to live abroad on their savings for a full year. In addition, her writing work is likely to be there when she gets back – in fact, she gets a book deal. Her husband is confident in his ability to find work in his field upon return. Thus, they get to spend a year without the obligation to work. And, you know, I would find my life to be much simpler if I could ditch the job too.

I agree that there are some things we can simplify. We do not need a large number of possessions. We would have less housework to do if we had smaller houses. The endless parade of activities cut into any time we might have to reflect or build friendships. But this isn’t really what we mean when we say we want to simplify.

Thus, I believe that this is the unacknowledged fantasy of the whole thing. We readers, indeed all of us, would like our lives to be less stressful. We would like things to be simpler. We would like to go through each day with a minimum of obligations. So I think that if Wilson had been honest, she would have realized that this wasn’t some quest to “find herself”, or “simplify her life.” It was, plain and simple, an extended vacation from obligation. It also happened to be an adventure, and a complete change from what she had been doing. However, all of that was dependent on her ability to escape from a significant portion of her responsibilities.

I would contrast this with her ancestors, who left Croatia for the usual reason. Like most of the immigrants throughout the history of our nation, they had a lack of opportunities at home, and the hope of greater things in a new land. They left with little other than the clothes on their backs, and worked long, hard hours for their food and shelter. It was, perhaps, an adventure, but it wasn’t about “self discovery”.

For the vast majority of human history, and indeed, over a large portion of the globe in these modern times, people have had to work hard to survive. “Simplification” meant finding some way of making a task easier.

Books of this sort therefore connect with both a fantasy and with a deep fear. At about Wilson’s age when she wrote this, many if not most of us realize that we are halfway though our lives, and we will have spent the majority of it sleeping and performing our obligations. Very little of our lifespan is actually spent doing what we wish to do. Thus, the fantasy isn’t really about living a simple life. It is about being able to have others do the mundane for us, so that we can chase fulfillment. The dream of living in past times is really the dream of being wealthy in a past time. Being a member of the Nobility, so that others will clean the house, grow the food, raise the kids.

This is where I believe the genre caters to a lazy part of our psyche, and why it often begins or ends with a divorce. Few of us can afford to quit our jobs. Even fewer of us would desert our children. We probably would not trade our homes for a small shack. How then, can we fulfill the fantasy? How can we escape our obligations? Well, about all that is left is to dump the spouse. And so it goes.

Ok, I’ve had my rant. Again, I do not want this to reflect badly on the book, because Wilson largely avoids these faults.

I want to point out a few things that stuck with me.

First, I love Wilson’s sense of humor about her life. She knows better than to take herself completely seriously, which is why she is able to write affectionately about the foibles of others.

I liked her lament that she never really learned about her cultural heritage. Her ancestors were embarrassed, so they did their best to show only the Americanized side.

“I wished I had more to teach Sam and Zadie [her children] about our roots. I knew not one recipe. Few Croatian words. No helpful bedtime stories in which the misbehaving child gets disemboweled by wolves.”

Wilson also describes the details of Croatian life in a memorable way. I liked her description of the shocking effect it had on her children to realize that meat comes from real, live animals. Her son Sam swore off of meat for much of the trip after seeing a whole sheep roasted. I’m more like Wilson’s husband Jim, who pulls off in a village in the middle of nowhere when he sees a whole pig being put into a roadside barbeque.

I’ll admit that I liked Jim quite a bit from this story. Although I will never be as socially easy-going as he was throughout this adventure, I really admire his ability. From the very beginning, he takes a laid-back approach to the whole adventure, which is, after all, his wife’s idea. He does his best to have fun, get along, make friends, and embrace the craziness of the whole thing. And, of course, imbibe alcohol with the guys. Naturally, everyone loves him, and he has the time of his life. By the end of the summer, at the going-away party, he is toasted as the non-Croatian who turns out to be the most Croatian of them all.

I also had to laugh at the incident where Zadie, the 4 year old, manages to shatter a glass by biting into it really hard. My kids, of course, would never do that. Nope. No way…

Finally, I really loved the story of finding the source of the one river. I would love to take that hike someday, and find the cool pool where the water just bubbles up.

As a conclusion, I would recommend immersing oneself in the story itself, and tuning out the “finding myself” frame to the narrative. Wilson has a story to tell, but the conclusion is not what Wilson (or her editor) feels the need to make it in the final chapter. Wilson has a good time, makes friends, connects with her husband and kids, but she doesn’t really find an epiphany. The last little bit seems tacked on to make it fit the mould, rather than because it is truly Wilson’s conclusion.

Note on alcohol: Several of the other members of the book club have made particular mention of the abundant drinking in this book. There certainly is plenty, including plenty of drinking before lunch, which doesn’t even sound good. Wilson’s host, Robert, is an alcoholic, even by Croatian standards.
My contribution to the discussion is this. First, we Americans still have a hangover (pardon the pun) from prohibition. Most cultures, and a portion of our own, have a history of social alcohol use that is reviled by other segments of our society. Thus, you have Baptists, Mormons, and other groups with a tendency to demand total abstinence. I would note that, regardless of the culture, there seems to be a certain percentage of alcoholics, even during prohibition.
My second thought is that we Americans have a weird way of embracing the alcohol-saturated cultures of Europe, while we turn our noses up at those here in our own country, particularly if they have brown or black skin, or watch car races. One country’s riff-raff is apparently another country’s beloved peasants.

Note on coarse language: There is a moderate amount of vulgarity and profanity in this book. It does not rise to the level of, say, Tom Clancy or other modern pulp authors, but it is there. Whether this is a problem for the reader may depend on whether the reader ever has lived outside of a conservative, Christian, middle-class community. Where I grew up, this book would barely get a PG rating, so I did not find it particularly distracting. There is nothing here I did not hear by third grade, at the latest. I am not fond of authors who use “earthy language” to cover for their lack of descriptive powers, but I think that Wilson used language judiciously, primarily when quoting other people or describing their conversations. I did not feel that she went for shock value or used it in a careless manner. One of the other members of our book club pointed out that both the language and the alcohol are accurately described, and that the book would not have been honest had these been omitted.

Links to reviews by other book club members:


  1. Ahh, I see what you are saying about this being a journey of self discovery, yes. Also I see how the genre typically caters to the lazy part of our psyche.

    I also disagree with you that it's necessarily an inner drive to escape (like Eat, Pray, Love) to take off for a year and live in a different place. I've heard of other people doing that (except that it is typically the male who has steady employment throughout the adventure.) Our family vision makes for these allowances and we don't really consider ourselves to be escaping but working harder now to bring about the ability to take things easier later on. In my head, there's a whole lot of hard, back breaking work to get to a point where you can take it a little easier (at least for a time.) Everything interesting or good like this involves sacrifice of some sort or another - which is good to point out. I think that the sacrifice might look different to some than others.

    I didn't really focus so much on Wilson being the primary bread winner throughout their stay because she explained what it was that they did and it made sense that the travel writer would still be employed while they were traveling. Their situation just made sense to me, I guess. That said, I thought that Jim could have used a little bit more structure in his day. At the same time though, both Jim and Jennifer acknowledged that it wasn't really a good thing for a man to be idle and have nothing to do. In order to feel fulfilled, he needed to have something to DO and I liked that he pitched in and helped neighbors with chores, etc. He went out and found work that was satisfying to varying degrees and I thought that was a healthy acknowledgement.

    Enjoyed reading your thoughts (and your notes on prohibition.) We enjoy wine and beer in our house but I would still say that it's a reserved intake. I don't think the Bible prohibits it but I do think one must be careful not to abuse it. I think in some cases Christians do abuse this 'Christian liberty' and then you have the extreme opposite which argue against a drop of alcohol every crossing your lips. Balance and moderation.

    1. I think we agree more than we disagree here. You have a realistic view of what it takes to make an adventure. I love that you use that word - because that is what it is in these cases. There is nothing wrong with an adventure, but it takes planning, resources, and sacrifices as you have pointed out.
      I didn't put it in my review (I always miss something!), but I think a part of my reaction is due to the double gender standard here. If a man were to say, "let's quit our jobs and have an adventure," 99 percent of women with children would protest.