Houston’s second novel (Sight Hound, 2005, etc.) combines thinly disguised travel essays with a new age romance as her heroine travels the world with one lover, then more or less settles down for another.
Narrator Pam is a California professor with a very flexible schedule, seemingly unlimited financial resources and an itch for roaming. Over 100 brief chapters follow her to various exotic locations, from Alaska to Bhutan to Patagonia to Tunisia, to name just a few—after a while the places begin to run together—where she gets to know the locals, enjoys the local food and usually has a lively adventure or inner awakening. Sometimes fearless, sometimes scared to death, the narrator (whose identity reads close to the author’s) doesn’t take herself too seriously during these quests, which often include near-death experiences, and she skillfully captures the essence of each place she visits. The descriptions of her plane rides, and aviation near-disasters, are often hilarious. But less humorous are the relationship issues Pam is working out as she approaches 50. She brags annoyingly about her many, many friends, including semi-famous literary ones, although none develop into actual characters—another case of names running together. But Pam’s romantic history is problematic. Her past includes a dead lover she idealizes. Her present, as the book opens, includes Ethan, a womanizing jerk whom women find incredibly desirable despite his lack of a discernable personality. After their drawn out breakup, she goes on a series of snidely described bad dates before she meets Rick, a “highbrow hick” with a Masters in philosophy and religion who makes custom wood flooring for a living. To Pam, he is the perfect mix of redneck and new age cowboy. The hitch is his 8-year-old daughter and his complicated connection to his ex-wife. Can Pam balance her need to explore the world with her desire for intimacy with homebound Rick?
Houston is a fine travel writer, but her characters are cardboard cutouts for every cliché of contemporary uplifting women’s fiction.