An American woman’s trips to foreign lands help her come to terms with a troubled past in this memoir.
Dimond, a retired writing professor, juxtaposes scenes from her world travels with fraught episodes from her personal life to tease out hidden resonances. She begins with an account of a three-year teenage sojourn in Italy in the 1950s, during which she contrasts the warmth of the local culture with her chilly relationship with her mother, a free-spirited artist, which left the young author feeling lonely and undervalued. Her adult travels took her to more exotic locales, which she intersperses with more family memories and Buddhist teachings that she adopted in maturity. At one point, for example, a nunnery in Burma evokes recollections of a childhood girlfriend’s family, which was as welcoming as her own was alienating. A 2013 visit to see Ho Chi Minh’s miraculously preserved corpse on display in Hanoi takes her back to a similarly hallucinatory acid trip that she had during the 1967 Summer of Love. A 2010 encounter with an elephant herd in Kenya, in which the adult females vigilantly guarded their calves, provokes a recollection of a time in 1966 when she briefly abandoned her husband and 1-year-old daughter for a fling in Las Vegas. She closes with a long, Proustian remembrance of her childhood hometown of San Francisco that takes in bohemian North Beach, the bustling downtown, and the Pacific Heights house where her grandmother led an elegant life that was full of disappointment.
The author’s loose-limbed narrative moves back and forth in time, telling a tale that’s less about specific events than it is about shifting moods in shifting places—sometimes anxious, plaintive, or grief-stricken and other times brimming with interest and wonder. The prose is gorgeous and novelistic, vividly depicting the pitiless African savanna (“Greasy-looking black vultures swooped and hovered and swooped again, pecking away at the sour-smelling carcass; they shrieked nervously”) and the mellow ambiance of Florence (“golden light reaching down and blessing an arched doorway, a cloud of cigarette smoke, as children scurried along with their soccer ball”). Much of the book’s sensuousness comes from its lavish descriptions of food, from elaborate feasts to a simple egg: “warm and comforting to hold in the palm of your hand, the creamy and sticky richness of the golden yolk, so good you must lick the little egg spoon clean.” At its haunted center is a wistful and wounded portrait of Dimond’s relationship with her mother, who is a changing landscape in her own right: She was movie-star glamorous in her youth, but the author describes how, in her decline, she had “the ugly wide calloused feet she tried to squeeze into pretty flats, the gnarled hands that she didn’t cherish anymore…her lipstick always seemed cracked.” Overall, this is not merely an account of strange lands and novel adventures, but also a moving saga of a woman wandering the world in search of home.
A luminous, engrossing meditation on family love and loss.