Elkins’ (The Heart Takes Flight, 2012) debut novel explores what happens when an anxious, timid woman decides to travel alone to a foreign country and face her greatest fear in life.
When the narrator, Melissa, first begins telling her story, it’s as fragmented as she is. She darts back and forth between the present—waiting in a Marseille train station to meet her cousin-by-marriage Blaise for the first time—and glimpses into her past: her aunt Tifi’s unreliability; the surprise package that prompted Melissa to leave her comfortable Chicago apartment for France; recollections of a failed relationship with “Mr. Once.” Melissa expected to meet aunt Tifi in France, but instead her cousin Blaise leaves her on the bank of the Canal du Midi, where Melissa’s to spend her visit on a beekeeper’s barge with her aunt Huguette and uncle Gilbert. There’s just one catch: Melissa is deathly afraid of bees. Elkins hits her storytelling stride as Melissa decides to face her fear and make a go of life on the boat. At first, she’s tense, awkward and insecure. But once she settles into the present moment, Melissa discovers her own sense of charm and good humor: “I waved and blew kisses at the table [of people] and pushed open the door into the cool, night air. The table burst into song as I departed.” She also discovers that she’s falling for another cousin-by-marriage—Blaise’s brother Chance. Unfortunately, he’s engaged to another woman. Despite a few misplaced commas and mistaken homophones, Elkins has a gift for painting pictures with few words, as when she describes Blaise’s behavior during that initial car ride: “He rolled his window down in heaving yanks and bolted his torso out of it, hollering at the driver ahead.” But her greatest success is molding Melissa into such an authentic, appealing character that it’s natural to cheer her on as she makes a bid for everything she never knew she wanted in life.
Aside from a somewhat fitful start, the nuanced story of a woman who finally sets out to face her fears and maybe—just maybe—reach for her dreams, too.