By: Maureen Johnson
Date Finished: 02.18.12
“I always thought that I could only do things with you, that you made me more interesting. But I guess I was wrong.”
A shy high school girl is led across Europe by thirteen letters, to be opened at specific points along the way. The adventure is orchestrated by Ginny’s “Runaway Aunt” who is the quintessential free-spirited artist. Ginny’s journey is a string of random encounters that carry her far from her comfort zone, but she follows the instructions as faithfully as she can. As it turns out, Ginny is retracing the steps her aunt Peg took some months earlier.
There’s so much good stuff in this book, it’s hard to know what to talk about. I found the characters extremely relatable — which wasn’t difficult for me since I’m a rather shy member of the theatre community and therefore saw quite a bit of myself in both Ginny and Aunt Peg. I trust an outgoing athlete or engineer could enjoy the story, but not to the same extent. Plus, the whole concept is exhilarating. How exciting would it be to take a vacation where your only guide is a set of letters? How much fun would it be to do that for someone else? There’s something inherently magical and terrifying in actually following such a plan, and Johnson brilliantly captures both aspects. Yes, the idea of wandering around Europe is romantic, but Johnson never lets us forget the reality of the situation. On your own, it can be downright scary, and Ginny has to tackle some pretty big (and reasonable) insecurities to do what she does.
The writing is smart and honest. Johnson doesn’t waste a word or an image or the reader’s time. Everything matters. It’s thrilling to see that kind of writing in action. What I liked best (even though it sounds a bit mundane) are her character descriptions. As a necessity of the plot, Ginny meets many strangers in a succession of cameos. Each new person has a short paragraph, a snapshot really, dedicated to their looks and demeanor. The introduction is brief, yet you knew the person immediately. It’s sheer craftsmanship.
I try to talk about the book, but my thoughts keep spinning off toward more grandiose topics (such as The Role of Art in Daily Life or the Practicalities of Life As an Artist). I think the simplest review is this: I am the target audience. Maybe less in the archery sense, but more in a Venn Diagram sense — Johnson’s audience could be in any of three circles and I happen to touch all three (something like that). I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it for a book club or anything, but it sure provoked a lot of thought in me.
At the end of the day: For me.