If you like the line of books featuring women having a post-divorce/career crisis/death in the family life crisis by venturing out into exotic locations entirely unprepared and rocking it against literally all odds, you may like this book, though it is apparently darker than others. If you are more cynical about this sort of plot device, you will likely want to strangle everyone in this book.
I didn’t hate everything about this book. Helen is 32 while our hero Jake is 22. When this sort of age difference is gender flipped, people don’t blink an eye, and I appreciate how little was actually made of this difference in the book. Then again, our heroine has the maturity of a high school senior, so for most of the book it seems like the age disparity is actually reversed.
And I do like a bitch for a heroine. We often require our heroines to be absolutely perfect. A sort of Disney princess. She must be kind and sweet and lovable and perfectly coiffed at all times or else how do we know she even deserves to be loved? I had no issue with Helen starting out as a snippy, egotistical, passive aggressive monster and I appreciated that she wasn’t completely transformed by 3 weeks in a forest, because that is not how life works. You do a thing, you learn from the thing, you hopefully get a bit better.
Only it doesn’t really seem like actually Helen learned all that much at all. She started and ended the book being completely self absorbed and petty, not thinking things through and mostly having everyone else do the heavy mental, intellectual and emotional weight lifting around her.
She talks about how she was never pretty enough to rely on her looks so she had to be interesting instead, but I saw no evidence of that on the page. We know she is a teacher, though she doesn’t seem particularly interested in her job. We know she got divorced but we get no sense of the relationship. We know she’s never been camping. We know that she not only signed up for this survival course impulsively, but did no research after she signed up to prep. Somehow, we’re supposed to buy her as an avid learner but that trait only comes up when convenient to the plot.
The only things about her that are remotely interesting are things that happened TO her, which is also where the book really takes a weird dive away from similar books which keep things fairly light. Her brother’s death when she was young and how it unraveled her family. Her high school boyfriend cheating on her with her best friend. Her marriage to an alcoholic. She experiences some fertility issues that some readers may find very triggering. But she never really digs into any of that stuff. They’re just plot points thrown in to make her seem interesting. Even her intense fertility issues are basically just thrown in for good measure. I literally can’t even tell you if she wants kids, so I have no idea how much those issues affected her, or if it was just that she resented having to go through it alone.
We’re supposed to think of her as a caregiver, but while she kept her brother alive when her mom was having problems, she was also vicious to him. We learn that he acted out as a kid precisely because everyone in the family, including her, saw him as a sort of symbol of everything that had gone wrong. Keeping someone alive is not the same as CAREgiving. She gave zero cares. She left her husband because of his alcohol dependence. I completely understand that such a situation is extraordinarily difficult, and indeed I think we often fail to discuss the intense difficulty of trying to be a support person for someone in the throes of addiction. But if you’re looking for a nuanced exploration of either incredibly fraught subjects, you won’t find it here. It’s just in there to add colour to her back story.
And pretty much everything is explored with the same casual, surface-level depth, because Helen tells the story from her perspective, and it doesn’t seem like it’s even occurred to her other people exist in 32 years of being alive. I’d be more forgiving if she was 18, but girl you’re a full grown woman being snooty to 20 year old sorority girls. What’s wrong with you?
And it gets worse, because of course. There’s no mention of race or really any social issue anywhere in the book, and I was mostly fine with that – not every book needs to have nuanced social commentary even if that is my personal preference, but then the book decided it needed to throw in some gentle white feminism in there. I thought I couldn’t dislike Helen any more and then the hikers arrive at a place called the Painted Meadow. The tour guide, another insufferable turd whose personality changes are as inexplicable as anyone else’s in the story explained that it was called that because there was a Shoshone massacre there. Our heroine’s first instinct is “oh, I didn’t realize the Shoshone were so bloodthirsty.” To his credit, the guide corrects her and say they weren’t.
A quick Wiki search suggests that the massacre being discussed here is the Bear River massacre, in which US troops killed 410 Shoshone people, mostly civilians, including women and children. This is not an uncommon story. This teacher knows so little US history that her assumption, apropos of nothing, is that they were the perpetrators.
So this woman is not remotely interesting, or smart, or well read. She is petty, self absorbed, thoughtless and at the bare minimum low key racist. Frankly I think all of that would be fine if she actually learned anything because that’s how character development works. But the next scene, she’s lounging in this beautiful place she now for sure knows is there because the original inhabitants of the land were brutally murdered and she’s tanning on a rock thinking “massacre or no, today in the warm sunshine, this place was exactly what I’d always seen when I pictured heaven.”
Why. Why. Why include such a dark part of colonialist history if you’re just going to shrug it off? What part of becoming a better person is this?
And that’s what’s so strange. Because these are clearly deliberate choices by the author. She wrote in a scene that explicitly highlighted Helen’s ignorance and racism and then dropped it. She wrote a scene where Helen is agonizing over That Terrible Day that destroyed her life (fertility issue), but then it’s completely dropped. The message seems to be, Whatever It Is, Just Get Over It By Thinking Of How Nice The Breeze Is.
And that’s really the issue for me with this story. It’s billed as a story of learning to be brave and present and strong, but she didn’t. She never asks tough questions. She never accepts responsibility for ways in which she hurt people. She never confesses her feelings to Jake or goes after him when they parted ways. He was always the one to make the first move, even after numerous, crystal clear rejections and some downright cruelty. She’s still mostly a dick to her brother.
Oh, and her fucking dog dies. It’s off the page from a medical thing but like WHY. And she literally gets over it in an hour so I’m pretty sure this woman is actually a psychopath.
I was recommended this book on the basis that it is a great book for what it is and I rejected romance for the longest time based on my perceptions of it so I try really hard to find stories I wouldn’t otherwise read and give them a fair chance.
And the thing is, I get that I tend to look at fiction I consume substantially more critically than most people. This book gets accolades. I get those accolades. If you have no personal experience with actual tragedy, this book is a light, fun, entirely unchallenging read and there is nothing wrong with wanting to sometimes just enjoy something without thinking too hard about it. But if any of these things have actually touched your life – substance abuse, parental abandonment, racism, fertility issues, the death of a pet companion, the death of a young sibling, the diagnosis of a serious medical condition… I think it will be difficult to enjoy.
I swear the next book I’m reviewing gets a positive review.