A lot of popular fiction these days seems to fall into a category I would call “wish fulfillment”—that is, books where nice things happen and people end up happier by the end. I just read two of those, and while I enjoyed both of them, they left me feeling a little…flat? It’s not that I don’t like a happy ending, but when it telegraphs itself throughout the book, one has to wonder: Did I really need to read this book?
The first was People We Meet on Vacation, by Emily Henry, author of the popular Beach Read, which I covered in a previous post. The title is a little misleading, because the person Poppy “meets” on vacation every year is her best friend Alex; the two shared a car ride home from college and have gotten together every summer for the subsequent 10 years to go on a vacation. (Poppy has engineered her career so as to become a travel writer, which makes the vacations much easier to navigate financially!) This yearly trip persists despite all complications, including moves to Chicago and then to New York for Poppy, job changes, other (dating) relationships for both—no matter what, Poppy and Alex have their trip.
The relationship is described by Poppy as 95 percent friend-zone and 5 percent what if? and this is probably a situation to which it is easy to relate for most people. I’ll bet if you think back, there was always that one person about whom you wondered, What if I acted on my impulse to change this relationship? but never quite dared. This premise, with inner waffling by Poppy to which we are privy, and some outer signs from Alex, to whose mind we are not welcomed until much later in the book, is what makes the whole thing work.
Like Beach Read, the main strength of this story is the witty banter between its two protagonists. Sometimes the back-and-forth from past to present trips with the accompanying descriptions both external and internal get a little wearying; but with the always tantalizing possibility that this trip is the one during which things will shift or change, the motivation to keep reading is pretty strong.
No spoilers, but it’s a feel-good book so you can probably guess what happens. In fact, the book’s cover blurb touts it as “a sparkling new novel that will leave you with the warm, hazy afterglow usually reserved for the best vacations.” Not exactly a cliff-hanger. So if you are going to read this book, you have to do so for the journey, not the destination, so to speak, which is kind of funny when referring to a book about travel.
The second book I read was The Heirloom Garden, by Viola Shipman and, while this book had more depth and less wit to it than Emily Henry’s books, it was still within that realm of predictability that made the inevitable ending simultaneously satisfying and anti-climactic. It’s about Iris Maynard, an old woman alone, who lost her entire family early in life and walled herself off, both figuratively and literally, from all but the minimum human contact. She is a botanist who lives behind a tall fence enclosing a beautiful garden that she has both preserved and extended from her mother’s and grandmother’s initial efforts. She grew up in the house where she lives, while her grandmother’s old house sits next door, and this one she rents out.
I’ll bet you can almost write the story in your mind from these beginning details—I could and did. A young couple with a daughter move into the rental house. The daughter, Lily, is the same age as Iris’s Mary was when she died; the husband is suffering from PTSD from his time in Iraq, while Iris’s husband never returned from World War II. The child is irrepressible and worms her way into Iris’s life and affections; the wife, Abby, is an engineer whose career has, like Iris’s, been fraught with misogyny; and the husband and Iris share agoraphobia and a lack of the will to live. Everybody’s issues and natures work upon everybody else’s, with the inevitable outcomes.
I’m not saying this book isn’t well written—it is—or that the situations aren’t powerful and poignant—they are—but…they are also so predictable. The highlight of this book is all the abundant detail about horticulture, and the “relevance” factor of dealing with PTSD. But again, the journey (touching moments and interesting information) has to become more important than the destination, because that is a foregone conclusion. You can say that you don’t know what will happen—will Iris come out of her shell? Will Casey come back into the world?—but really, you do. So I guess the point of books like this is the feel-goods you get as you read them.
There is, of course, a story arc to every tale, whether it has a happy ending or not, but for some reason the predictability of contemporary fiction like this is rubbing me the wrong way right now and I’m wanting more. Maybe it’s time to go back to science fiction…