In Ungar’s debut memoir, a twice-divorced Jewish mother explores Europe in 1974.
An earlier trip to Europe as a study-group chaperone for the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising prompts 36-year-old Ungar to leave her teenage sons with their father while she ventures abroad. Ignoring her mother’s vigorous objections, the unworldly Ungar initially travels to Uxbridge and Rome with a female friend. In Rome, the self-described romantic experiences her first of several passionate, but chastely described, encounters on her journey. When a hastily arranged plan of singing with two African-American women falls apart, Ungar becomes an au pair in St. Tropez, France. This four-month stint proves the most vivid, compelling adventure in the book. Forced to speak only French, the narrator deepens her recollections with snippets of humor, clear-eyed commentary and rich, sensory details. Luscious descriptions of French food, humorous anecdotes featuring a rambunctious boy and keen observations on fashion and island customs make for delightful reading. Elsewhere, Ungar slips repeatedly into dutiful prose, carefully recounting the precise details of sites seen, money spent and letters received. Glossing over unpleasantness such as a roommate’s inability to travel freely because of apartheid, the book focuses on happier, if more mundane, escapades such as the purchase of a yellow hat. A walk through a town where strangers approach and attempt to sell her drugs merits a single sentence. When the narrator hears talk in Germany about World War II and the Nazis, she reports feeling “emotional.” Being told, but not shown, the narrator’s inner state leaves the reader detached. At its best, this memoir charms readers with its minute details of day-to-day life outside of the U.S. in the early 1970s. In the end, it feels more like a historical record written for an inner circle, rather than a compelling tale for a wider audience.
The jotted impressions in this postcardlike memoir will periodically intrigue or amuse, but ultimately leave readers pining for a deeper connection.