A motley crew of travelers undertakes a tour from Hong Kong to Beijing.
A four-week trek through China attracts a wide variety of vacationers: a serial medical tourist, a pair of newlyweds off to a rocky start, a Mormon couple, a disc jockey, an Israeli refusenik and her gay roommate, a computer game programmer, a woman with an eating disorder, a recent divorcee, a young widow, and their government-issued tour guide. Together they discover breathtaking vistas, tour centuries-old monasteries, conquer the squat toilet, survive the occasionally less-than-luxurious accommodations and life-risking transportation and attempt to identify the inevitable mystery meat at each meal. Along the way, in addition to snapping photos and snapping up souvenirs, the characters get to know each other, some much better than others, clash with each other at times, discuss current events and share in one character’s personal tragedy. Though the travelers have come from all over, it turns out that several of them are connected through mutual acquaintances. They are also surprised to find how much Bob, the tour guide, feigns ignorance of China’s recent history. Barbuto (Instigating Profligacy, 2005, etc.) is a solid writer, and she vividly captures the hectic gauntlet that packaged tours often are. In the initial chapters, she introduces each of her characters and offers a glimpse into who they are and how (and why) they got where they are. However, once on the tour, readers are privy only to an outside observer’s perspective, rather than any character’s internal point of view. Without a deeper connection to any of the characters, the daily meals, tours, bathroom breaks, etc., become repetitive.
Barbuto’s characters possess an interesting selection of traits; getting to know them better would have made a more rewarding reading experience. Anyone considering such a trip, though, will do well to consult this novel first.