Into the Yonder, Wild Blue and Otherwise
It was the kind of week when an advertising slogan from my childhood, “Take me away, Calgon,” seemed to insert itself unbidden into my stream of consciousness. I’m not much for long baths; the imagery was purely a metaphor for refreshing immersion. Oh, the fantasy of soaking in something other than what lay before me—reams of technical writing, piles of unsorted mail and laundry, obligations I’d rather eschew than endure. Everyday life can be agreeable enough but, sometimes, in unflattering light, it takes on the appearance of (as first related by Max Ehrmann) “sham, drudgery and broken dreams.” Yes, take me away. Pronto.
Random House sent a package to my door, and the title within made me a sweet two-syllable promise: Escape. The new novel by Barbara Delinsky fed into my longing, and it was the easy-to-apply salve I needed for my inner turmoil. The book is told in the voice of Emily Aulenbach, an attorney who, when we meet her, is running on the college-loan paying, sleep-depriving, self-depriving hamster wheel that is the life of the upwardly mobile young lawyer in ultra-competitive Manhattan. Her husband James is on his own parallel, unrelenting wheel, from which he occasionally texts her. But he’s still pushing forward when Emily begins to think she may be treading in place or even losing ground. After years in a time-starved lifestyle and with an increasingly hollow feeling in her core, our protagonist finds herself, seemingly suddenly, just about ready to snap.
What does a young woman who has the trifold advantages of a promising degree, a boss who values her, and a loving husband do when she just can’t take it anymore? Well, you could tell her to begin a gratitude journal, send her off on a long spa weekend, or recommend that she build some houses for Habitat or some other such endeavor. But that’s if you catch her before she jumps, feeling suffocated, into her car and drives northward. What ensues is a return to her old haunt in New Hampshire, a place where Emily felt free and happy many years ago. When her car’s mechanical workings refuse to cooperate and signal that perhaps she should prolong her stay, she finds herself groveling before Vicki, an old friend with whom she’s lost touch. But, just as it should be with an old friend, Vicki welcomes Emily back to Bell Valley. Conveniently, she runs a bed and breakfast with space to spare.
Before her great escape, Emily had stirrings. Often she dreamed of a coyote, left with the sense that something unnamed was beckoning from the thick forest of her psyche. Her arrival in Bell Valley opens up time for her to think about where and how her life will proceed when her visit to this haven comes to a close. She remembers pleasures and passions she nearly forgot, and ponders the coyotes she stumbles upon during her rambles. James is incredibly patient with her desire to disconnect, and her boss is pretty tolerant, too, so much so that I wondered how plausible this kind of story would be for the average working couple (and how many of us have best friends waiting at charming beds and breakfasts for our breakdowns). But the sexy scenes that helped to inform Emily’s decisions were like having a much-craved, although not very nutritive, bowl of sugary treats after a long day at work, and affirmed for me that I am not yet past the titillation of a heated interlude.
Emily finds herself drawn to old flame Jude, a loose but very compelling cannon. James fights for her in his own, less firecracker-like way. It wouldn’t be much of an escape for my readers if I gave it all away, but suffice it to say that Escape is exactly what it purports to be. In among the candy is a reminder to listen to dreams and nagging inner voices, and perhaps even totem animals if they insist on continually crossing our paths. Perhaps it’s just that the book caught me at a time when I was particularly ripe for the message of running away and figuring it all out, but I wanted to stowe away among Emily’s hastily packed luggage, if only for a long weekend of quilted bed and breakfast reveries.
My second read again found me mind melding with a wandering woman, although it’s not clear that this heroine’s change of course was intentional. In her first novel, I Was Amelia Earhart, Jane Mendelsohn takes literary license with the American sweetheart whose disappearance continues to intrigue our nation and the world at large. This may sound naïve, but it had never occurred to me before that Earhart had a navigator with her when she vanished. So the tale is ultimately a story of two, the aviator and her navigator Fred Noonan.
The tone of the book is dream like, and it took me a while to get into the rhythm as the writer changed from third to first person and back again. Looking back through the early pages, I see that this is an intentional device, spelled out for the eye of the more attentive reader:
…Heroines, they did whatever they wanted. They smoked cigarettes on horseback under silken skies. They carried guns and had a multitude of lovers. She was seduced by the vision of an imaginary world where women led extraordinary lives, and when the picture was about factory workers or men kissing their secretaries, she stuck behind the stage and played checkers or penny poker with the manager’s one-handed son.
Sometimes my thoughts are clearly mine. I hear them speak to me, in my own voice. Other times I see myself from far away, and my thoughts are ghostly, aerial, in the third person.
Even though I missed this setup on my first read through, the device, while at first a bit annoying, was effective in the end. Through her wandering tenses Amelia is intimate and detached all at once. I saw her through wide-angle and telephoto lenses, then viewed the world through her eyes and experienced her private thoughts and sensations. She was mystery and confidant, best friend and stranger. She kept my attention.
Amelia Earhart’s not the sort of book you pick up if you are starved for plot. It’s a contemplative journey in which the icon reminds us of the dichotomies of the human condition—how a pair can bicker and then soothe; how an individual can crave fame and then wish herself completely and permanently hidden. And how all of that is really okay, in the end, because there is a much bigger picture. Of course, there’s nothing like being stranded on an island to bring all of these truths into sharp relief. If you’re unable to execute a plan for being stranded in an enchanting location, this book, in a very different way from Escape, can serve as a useful substitute.
Amelia summed up for me, in lyrical fashion, the need to listen to that “take me away” wish and to reap the resulting expanse of time to reflect, just as both Emily and Amelia did in their own way:
These were the days when she became reacquainted with herself, without hoping for anything but the satisfaction of knowing that she had explored an unknown sensation or feeling. This was her only object, and in its pursuit she discovered that she knew only a small portion of the vast landscape that was her soul. It was as if what she considered to be herself all these years was only a magnified detail of an enormous painting whose entire composition and narrative she had never before known existed, let alone seen. And in this way she began to view the universe differently.
I’m sure both Emily and Amelia would raise their glasses to my toast: Here’s to the long weekend I felt strangely compelled to put in for, the weekend that will allow me a break in routine and long stretches of solitude. Here’s to getting lost, and found again. Here’s to viewing the universe differently, and to books that can help us get there.