I may understand when I am a middle-aged woman

Travel book review of Without Reservations:  Travels of an independent woman by Alice Steinbach

Targeted at middle-aged women, this is a pleasant, but not remarkable, memoir of a single woman traveling in Europe.

Quite frankly, the target audience for this book is defined by the subtitle:  travels of an independent woman.  Alice Steinbach is a middle-aged, single Baltimore Sun newspaper writer with grown children who took off for a year or so to live in Europe.  If I were a woman of a certain age, this would probably speak to me, but as a gentleman of an uncertain age, it was just so-so.  Steinbach doesn’t introduce us to parts of Europe we didn’t know.  She doesn’t deliver the insightfulness of a veteran travel writer nor the wit of a David Sedaris.  That is not necessarily bad.  Her stories are pleasant enough, and the characters are likeable and quite realistic.

This is a good enough (i.e. average) memoir when she’s not trying to make her story more interesting than it is.  She has a tendency to pat herself on the back.  Look how adventurous I am to run off to Europe!  Look how serendipitious!  In reality she may have been just eating and shopping her way through Paris.  She had a stable job for decades (as well as a Pulitzer Prize), so it’s difficult to buy the “extreme risk” component that she tries to sell to the reader.  (Especially considering that she had previously lived in Europe).  Not to say that moving abroad is not a bit scary.  But it’s certainly reversible.  And her letters to herself which introduce each chapter sound alternately forced and naïve.

Sometimes she tries to hard to find the story, when, some days, there is no story.  Dry passages like “I selected my dinner:  roasted red-leaf salad with pancetta and tarragon, and a chicken breast cooked in lemon and ginger sauce with broccoli florets” don’t really advance a scenario that could’ve happened in any mid-sized American city.  Sometimes it seemed like she gave herself a daily writing quota, even on days when nothing happened.

While it didn’t do much for me, this is a pleasant memoir targeted at the middle-aged. She sells it as “adventure,” but I think she may have missed the main point.  Sometimes life needs a boost, and travel can be a great pick-me up.  She makes us realize that every day is not serendipitous.  Some days we meet interesting people.  Some days we wander the streets window shopping.  Some days there is just nothing to report.  And that would be all right too.

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