Once upon a time, travelogues were all about travel. They told tales of exotic places, fascinating foreign cultures and bumpy bus rides in the company of chickens, and we loved them for it. But ever since Elizabeth Gilbert decided that she needed to get away to get over her divorce and millions of us happily handed over €9.99 to read about it, travelogues – especially those written by women – now have to come served with a side of self-discovery. It’s like travel memoir law or something. And so when the narrators of The Lost Girls abandoned their career ladders for a year on the road, they weren’t just looking for some photo opportunities and a bronzed backpacker tan, but some guidance from the universe as to what they should or shouldn’t do when they got back. But while travel opens the mind to the wonders of our world, are we putting a little too much pressure on the experience by expecting it to solve all of our problems as well?
“High above a waterfall in the Argentinean jungle, three friends make a pact. Struggling with uncertainty about their paths in life, they agreed to quit their glamourous New York City jobs, ditch their apartments, put their relationships on hold, and embark on a yearlong round-the-world search for answers. Authentic and uplifting, The Lost Girls will inspire anyone who has ever questioned the track she or he is following or longed to strike out in a new direction.”
The girls begin their trip in South America. Being close to where I had my own adventures in 2008, I was instantly transported back to a time when life revolved around overweight backpacks (unchanging no matter how much you emptied out), malaria tablets, inch-thick mattresses, noisy hostels and $1 mojitos. But unlike unfit, unadventurous moi, these crazy ladies hike for fun – for fun! – and one of them jogs every morning no matter where in the world she happens to be, so I think it’s safe to say they got more out of their experience than I did of mine, which was mainly lattes and Facebook photos. (Although that suited me just fine, thank you very much.)
From the cozy bubble of the backpacker trail, the girls move to Kenya where they get their first real taste of the under-developed world, before leaving for India. (Visit to an ashram? Check!). Then they rejoin backpacker paradise in Asia, before finishing their journey living “a normal life” in Australia and New Zealand. Their tale isn’t hugely original in that their route and the experiences they have on it are pretty much par for the course, but then you could also say that all the astronauts who went to the moon had pretty much the same trip. Does that make it any less exciting? Of course not.
As for the writing, two of the girls had only previously written for articles for magazines, and one hadn’t written at all. Combined they’re no Bill Bryson, but then who is? (Well, besides Bill Bryson…) The only real problem I had was with the dialogue. Not the words being said, but the fact that no one could just say them – they all had to be doing a routine while they did. This inevitably lead to some serious adverb abuse and gave the text a juvenile, Sweet Valley High feel in parts. (“You can imagine,” Catherine said grumpily, dropping into the beanbag by the window and theatrically sticking a hat on her head at the same time, “how this could get annoying after a while.” She grinned, pushing her hair off her face. “I mean, really,” she added, holding out her hands questioningly. “Can’t people just talk anymore?”) There was also an inordinate amount of plopping down when sitting would have done the job. However these problems seemed to be mostly contained to the chapters at the beginning where the girls are still in New York, and they all seem so nice that I am more than ready to forgive them. I kept turning the pages – I kept wanting to turn them – and isn’t that the main thing?
As a non-American, this book held an extra fascination for me. While not everyone in Ireland has lived abroad or backpacked, travel is part of our lives, even if it’s just a all-inclusive two-week break by a pool in the Canaries. I was on my parents’ passports when I was toddler and got my own as soon as I turned 16, and while I might not be able to find, say, Montenegro on a map, I know where all the big places are. It was eye-opening to read about a world where taking 10 days off work to travel abroad is frowned upon as a selfish indulgence and/or career suicide, but at times I also couldn’t help feel a little like the girls’ trip wasn’t quite the big, life-changing deal they were making it out to be. (I didn’t wholly agree, for instance, with the tag-line “One unconventional detour around the world.”) But I guess it’s all relative, right?
Some reviewers have barked that this book is too long, and that we didn’t need a whole chapter devoted to one of the girls breaking the news to her boyfriend that she was going away for a year. Another complained that all the girls did on the road was party, and others bristled at what are obviously beautiful, successful over-achievers bemoaning a lack of funds or conditions on the road – or anything at all, for that matter. But I believe that books should be taken as they are and judged on how well they fulfill the promise of their premise, and not on how they compare to what you want them to be. (For example: someone gave my book 2 out of 5 stars based solely on the fact that they wanted a negative behind-the-scenes at Disney exposé, and didn’t get one. Another did the same because I didn’t work in the theme parks, but in one of the on-property hotels – which is still working in Walt Disney World, jackass.) The Lost Girls says it’s the story of three girls who left their NYC lives and travelled around the world for a year, and that’s exactly what it is. I bet if they’d told us nothing about themselves and left out all the fun they’d had on the road, we’d be complaining that the prose was too dry, the characters too one-dimensional and the story too boring.
This book had a weird side effect on me: it made me desperately want to move to New York City. (Where, coincidentally, I bought this book – on a sunny Saturday morning in October, and from the famous Strand bookstore near Union Square. You can’t hear me, but I’m singing “Memories” now.) Considering all the exotic locations that took up the majority of this book, I’m taking that as the surest sign yet that my backpacking days are over.
On balance, I really liked The Lost Girls. It may not have the depth of Eat, Pray, Love or the humor of Bill Bryson, and it may not have revealed any universal truths, but it did keep me up past my bed-time every night during the first week of NaNoWriMo, and had me longing for my own next travel adventure.
(And as if to prove its entertainment value, during an image search for this post I came across a Variety story about how Jerry Bruckheimer has just ordered a pilot of a potential TV series based on the book. Wow. Congrats, girls!)
Thanks to Andrea for the recommendation!