Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Review: Laura Fraser's All Over the Map

All Over the Map

by Laura Fraser

Published by Broadway, an imprint of Crown Publishing

Release Date: June 1, 2010

288 pages


"It's not that the grass is greener, it's that you can never be on both sides of the lawn at the same time."

What happens when the thing you love doing almost more than anything else suddenly becomes the one thing you can't do? What happens when you realize that that one thing that defines you has also been the one thing that's kept you from having the thing you wanted most?

In Laura Fraser's All Over the Map (a follow up to her memoir The Italian Affair), Fraser writes about finding herself single and childless at the age of forty, after her lover unceremoniously dumps her during a trip to Oaxaca, Mexico. Now the next step of her life is "completely up in the air."

As she charts her journey to figure out the next phase of her life and shares her newest stops around the globe, Fraser becomes the victim of a vicious assault that impedes her ability to just up and go whenever the urge strikes. Now, the only terrain she will be covering will be the one within her. What will she learn about herself, and will that self-examination change her lifetime goals?

Comparisons to Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love (and even Francis Maye’s Under The Tuscan Sun) are inevitable. Single woman finds herself bereft. Seeks to lose herself in another world and thus find herself. And then find love. The end.

And of course, the comparisons are reasonable: all are writers. All find themselves single and childless, and thus have the freedom and ability to go wherever they desire. All have, to some extent,  put career before  personal life, and then find their personal life in shambles. All seek to repair that.
If my review seems odd and disjointed, it’s because I’m all over the map myself when it comes to my feelings concerning both the writer and her story.
288 pages isn’t a long book, and it isn’t unusual for me to read something like this in a day, but it took me an astounding month to wade through this.


I often roll my eyes at reviewers who don’t like a book because they can’t relate to a protagonist. Or because they hate said protagonist. Get over it. The author doesn’t want you to be bff’s!
But, oh, how Laura Fraser rubbed me the wrong way. For much of her memoir, she is self-congratulatory for living the unconventional life. And the other half of the novel, she complains about not finding love.  

Where to begin about why this irked me as much as it did: on one hand she sings her own praises for escaping the chains of conventionality; on the other hand, she falls victim to desiring the most conventional thing women are conditioned to desire: happiness with a man.  

How is it that a 40 year old woman isn’t clearly seeing this conflict?
She flits from one experience to another, which reminds me of a quote I read somewhere, that it’s dangerous to equate movement with progress.  Going from one thing to another, or one place to another, or one person to another, is like living live in a perpetual state of ADD. It’s always about getting lost in the new moment, and the wheels are always spinning, and there’s never a moment to just stop. And while Fraser eventually takes up meditation, the reader is left wondering if it’s just her newest phase.

And so I finished this book last summer, put it to the side, and never could bring myself to review it because I just didn’t know how to.
And then I picked it back up again several months later and started reading it again. And I found myself underlining passages. And I read with a little more compassion. And I saw that she was being self-congratulatory because, really, what else could she do but be happy with her lot? And what more could she do but get on the endless circuit of self-improvement because when your life sucks, who can you blame but yourself? And that self-improvement kick was partly why she was flitting from one thing to another.

And it all made a little more sense. And I liked Laura Fraser a little more. And I respected her for writing about herself in all her not-so-likeable glory. For putting the spotlight on those aspects of herself that women don’t usually publicly acknowledge, like wanting to “feel womanly” and “feminine.”  
She touches on a lot of complicated issues that women face today with humor and all the nuance that these conflicts deserve. Feminism, for example, is a matter that is never settled. The contradictions in what we espouse, what we believe, and how we live, are dizzying:

“There is an uneasy balance everywhere of cultures wanting to protect and control women, allowing them some autonomy out of economic necessity, then punishing them for taking it, leaving them without any protection at all.”
“Despite all my women’s studies classes, I never paid much attention to making real money, always assuming I’d marry someone who’d bring home the bacon while I’d write witty essays about why I stopped being a vegetarian.”

“It’s sweet to be back in Italy, where even little boys look out for you if you’re a woman—not belittingly, but protectively, in a courteous way.”

“Now [Kathy] tells me how she’s into The Rules, the popular book of retro advice on how to get a man to love you, it seems to me, by being aloof, falsely helpless, and manipulative, This shocks me, because Kathy is more likely to extol the virtues of Merleau-Ponty or Thich Nhat Hanh. “
Other issues that she tackles with equally impressive subtlety: body image and the relationship with food, the distinction between traveling and running away, the difference between getting what you want and settling, and the fine line between accepting yourself for who you are and just not caring enough to ask yourself the tough questions.

In the end I not only got over my dislike of Fraser, I was able to appreciate her memoir a bit more, and respect her for writing about herself so candidly (and in such a negative light). I acknowledged that she had a leg up on Gilbert in some respects, especially in that I actually finished her memoir (I stopped smack dab in the middle of Eat, Pray, Love and two years later, I still haven’t picked it up). 
I'll conclude with a quote:
"It's only when we see how our actions have everything to do with the results in our lives that we can start to change them."