The power of steam can only take one so far, and newcomer Brue’s world tour of some fabled bathhouses runs out of gas somewhere outside of Moscow.
Brue has a vague idea that it might be fun to open a bathhouse in New York: “I would set about writing the most tantalizing business plan ever to cross Ian Schrager’s desk.” In the spirit of getting it right for Mr. Schrager, she takes flight to Istanbul to start her research among the grand old dames of steamrooms, the hamam. Much to her disappointment, the sorority of public bathing, that special camaraderie that comes with sharing a private act in a public place, has been on the skids in Turkey since the days of Ataturk and the rush to modernity. An acquaintance tells her, “Turks don’t go anymore, you know. Very unhygienic”—a mysterious comment clarified when Brue mentions being washed “with a mitt that smelled like Gorgonzola cheese.” Onward she forges, to Greece and Russia and Finland, to Japan, to East 10th Street in New York City, sometimes getting into the swing of things (“everything so carnal and raw . . . a parade of humanity you’d never be able to assemble”), sometimes getting hung up on bathhouse etiquette or levels of immaculateness: “A foreign country . . . where public bathrooms were clean, sanitation was an obsession, and taking a sauna was the state religion. What wasn’t there to smile about?” Well, for one thing, Brue’s boyfriend, who makes an irrelevant appearance simply to let readers know that Brue is as soulful as the most Russian of banyas, yet still innocent: “something elemental was missing—a lump in my throat, an occasional bout of the shivers.” So, too, her stabs at filling the blank spaces with travelogue, which come to grief: “The Blue Mosque’s wealth of Iznik tiles—mostly blue, surprise, surprise.”
The experience here is something like taking a bath with Gidget.