The Exhilarating Delight of Reading About Women in Search of Themselves
You wonder too, right? About the person you'd be if you weren't dining weekly with your siblings or forever running into your ex-husband at the grocery store. Maybe if you ditched the neighborhood, the car, the meatless Mondays and the DVR, your inner self would be revealed as something tough and light, like copper wire—able, aware and alive.
The question haunts us all in the rare moments we cobble together to ponder it, which is probably why books about women venturing forth in search of themselves are so exhilarating. In Laurie Colwin's Happy All the Time, Holly Sturgis leaves town purposefully and calmly. She's not fleeing her husband so much as simply claiming space for herself, distance from which to gain perspective—and adding a dash of daring to the familiar. (Gloriously, her husband's resulting fear and nerves do nothing to dissuade her.)
Recent writers may have modernized the journey, but the trope predates them. E.M. Forster's characters took the trip more than once: Adela Quested in A Passage to India joins an older widow on a fateful trip to the fictional Chandrapore and discovers that an adventure in a new country should probably take into account the people who already live there. Forster's novel A Room with a View also follows a young woman embarking on a more independent path; Lucy Honeychurch and her cousin travel to Florence and Rome, experience a failed engagement and an elopement, even encounter murder. Europe has long hosted fictional American ingenues seeking the best versions of themselves, from Isabel Archer and her doomed but determined choice of a husband in Henry James's The Portrait of a Lady to Isabel Walker, who got quite a Parisian education in older men and lingerie in Diane Johnson's Le Divorce. (Conversely, Hemingway's Lady Brett Ashley careened through Europe in The Sun Also Rises in order to avoid learning anything about herself. I can't recommend her methods, but her taste in matadors is unassailable.)
Okay, so it's not always triumphant, this search for oneself. And sometimes, as in Alice Munro's story "The Children Stay," the flight is barely comprehensible. Pauline ditches her family during their vacation on Vancouver Island for a callow younger man in a nearby motel. Her lurch away from life as a mother and wife is so impulsive and carnal, it feels almost creaturely; but even when she does take a moment to think it through, she forces herself not to return home. Pauline has revealed something of her deepest self that most of us can relate to: That innermost chamber isn't always filled with light.
This is just one example of the surprises to be found in these pages. What the questers tend to have in common is that they seek one thing but often find each another. The young ones, especially, tend to smooth out and grow up in their new environs, their inner posture straightening as they learn their way around sex, love, hunger, defiance, anger and loss. You feel them gathering weight as time passes, growing formidable. That's what happens to all of us, even on less extreme journeys. New terrain demands the flexing of new muscles; solitude leaves you with no one to decide for you, and no one to please, cater to or argue with. When you're the one person you answer to, these books remind us, it's only a matter of time before that authority starts to feel just right.