Guest review by Shelley DeWees – The Uprising
“A chorus of Happy Birthday roused her into greater awareness of the rest of the group. Her aunt, who’d managed to light candles on a big, chocolate, sprinkle-covered birthday cake, came forward in song and demanded Gwen’s attention. She thought about her wish: to be happy, secure, loved by someone and not so very afraid her life would end before she got to experience this. She took a breath and blew.
Every candle went out. All except one.”
So begins the 30th year of the life of Gwen, a beige-slipper-wearing, commitment-obsessive, scrupulously diligent Iowa girl. She loves Andrew Lloyd Weber, meticulous flossing and fruit kebabs, and she knows in her heart that all she wants is to be engaged…to an insurance agent with the company motto on the back of his car.
If you think it sounds dull, you’re right! Gwen is lost in a life of muted and measured structure, swimming in bowls of bran cereal and floral peach skirts, Barbara Streisand, pearl earrings, and crippling juvenile embarrassment about her own sexuality. She’s the dreariest 30-year-old you’ll ever meet, but you’ll hope for the best as Gwen’s feisty Aunt Bea surprises her with a trip to Europe. Think of the possibilities! She can walk among the ruins of Rome! She can eat Sachertorte in Vienna and meander the watery streets of Venice! She can live for once! That is, if she’s ready to be alive at all, to breathe in and out, to take it all in.
I had my doubts, actually. Gwen is chronically detached from everything around her, constantly moping and pouting as she participates in the classic American-in-Western-Europe experience: Italy, Austria, Hungary, France and England with a tour guide and a group of octogenarians. As she wanders around, uninspired and lifeless, she begins to slowly understand how much she’s missing as a result of her fear and mistrust of the unknown. Where was her path leading? What the hell was she doing, traipsing around like a lost puppy? Where’s the life in her life? Gradually, she begins to figure things out with the help of a gregarious English man and his spontaneous younger brother, her aunt, and the other tour mates whose sparkling personalities utterly dwarf her own.
Having read Marilyn Brant’s work before, I was unsurprised when the prose and phrasing of the book rolled through my mind like honey, beautifully structured and carefully executed with the clarity of a practiced writer. A Summer in Europe reads a lot like a travel guide, with snippets of history and accounts of heavily-visited landmarks and restaurants, hotels and gelato stands, coffeehouses and boutiques, an undertaking that must’ve been challenging and complicated. Again Ms. Brant’s commitment to quality sings true, as seen in her previous works like Friday Mornings at Nine.
But just like Friday Mornings at Nine, my scruples with the book came with the depiction of characters, both main and supporting. I rolled my eyes at Gwen’s lack of strength, passions, or pursuits and her inability to order her own meals, but I let out an audible “UGH!” at her girlish blushing in front of David in Florence. I found myself saying, “REALLY?!” when Gwen bounced back and forth between two men, entertaining the idea of being with both of them but never considering what would happen if she were to simply be alone, to wander off the beaten track by herself and think things through. Gwen is on a non-adventure adventure, and her determination to be a woman of the world seems disingenuous and totally insincere by the end. A Summer in Europe’s secondary roles are filled by wholly predictable creatures, complete with bad jokes, gender stereotypes, and rounded off with an absurd encounter with “Surrey With the Fringe on Top” that I’ll leave open to your imagination.
With all the talent that seems to be pouring out of Marilyn Brant’s fingers, I still greatly look forward to another contribution. A Summer in Europe may absolutely be worth your time if you appreciate the simple beauty of seamless prose, or if you’re thinking about visiting Europe for the first time, but you may also find that you’re better off waiting for her next book.
3.5 out of 5 Stars
Summer in Europe, by Marilyn Brant
Kensington Publishing (2011)
Trade paperback (352) pages
Nook: ISBN: 978-0758274212
Kindle: ASIN: B005G023VI
© 2007 – 2012 Shelley DeWees, Austenprose