Without Reservations – Alice Steinbach

Another week, another not-actually-scheduled blog post as I attempt to catch up collecting my thoughts on the books I have read.

This week’s book is Alice Steinbach’s Without Reservations: The Travels of an Independent Woman, which is described  by Us Weekly as “A rich account of one woman’s journey through Europe and into the self.”

Before we begin, it is important to note that Without Reservations is the first book written by a woman in my journey of travel book consumption. Let me expand on this and refresh your memory:

I wrote a travel novel last year (which you can read about over here) and, when I began to edit it, I realized two very important things. First, I don’t like editing very much. Second, when it came to the non-fiction travel genre, I had only read On the Road and a copious amount of Bill Bryson (who is, to me, a writing god among men).

Other than spending time with Mr. Keroauc and Godhead Bryson, I was travel novel clueless. A neophyte. A newb. Completely unversed in a genre I was attempting to enter.

Enter: The List.

I decided the best way to remedy my ignorance was to create The List. The List would contain the classics, I decided. Whatever those were. But as I began researching the classics, I found things that maybe weren’t classics, but still were early genre-definers. Or novels that inspired the travelogues of the greats. So I added those.

Then I thought, hey, you know, there are some very prolific and loved travel writers who don’t have a CLASSIC to their name, but they’re key figures in the travel writing world. So I should probably add at least one of each of their books to my list so I have a working knowledge of their voice, style, personality, approach, etc.

And then I realized that I simply didn’t have enough just American road-trip stories. So I made a list specific to that.

And then I realized that, when I examined my American road-trip novel list, there were no freaking female authors.

Which meant I had to dig deeper.

At the end of my research, I had found twenty-two books written by women about traveling through America. Unfortunately, very few of them were car journeys, even less were solo trips and it left me feeling both empty (where are my lady car-jockeys, roaming the country?!) and excited (I know I’m not the first to do this and I’m probably missing research, but maybe I could be the first mainstream published modern day female novelist to do the whole solo road-trip across America!).

For those curious, the breakdown of the twenty-two female-authored books is as follows:

  • 3 road-trip theory books (cinema, women traveling, literature)
  • 4 books written before 1960 (some significantly before)
  • 3 hiking travel books (i.e. Wild)
  • 3 motorcycle journeys
  • 1 book that paddled its own canoe
  • 1 train journey
  • 1 essay collection
  • 1 historical non-fiction about six female pioneers (that probably shouldn’t be on this list, but the author is a travel author and most of her books are set outside America, but this one isn’t so…)
  • 3 books that have multiple ways of traveling for the author as they explore a particular theme and the travel seems like it may be secondary to the topic they have chosen.
  • 2 books that I am unsure as to their modes of travel, purpose, and so on.

I am sure that I am missing important titles. I’m also learning that many travelogues reference other travelogues, so I am becoming slowly aware of writers I have missed, which is quite helpful.

Anyway, what I am trying to say with the above, given that I have yet to crack this particular section of this list, is that I have not yet found a non-fiction American road-trip book written by a woman primarily about her journey.

It feels weird, like there’s this hole in American literature that shouldn’t be there and, because of that, I have a hard time believing that it is there. I must be missing something. It’s me, not American literature.

We shall see if this comes true.

But let’s get back to Steinbach.

Without Reservations. This was not one of the twenty-two novels mentioned above because it’s not set in America. No, Steinbach tours three classic Europe joints: London, Paris, and Milan.

It’s hard to approach this one. The books I’ve read thus far, even the ones I haven’t yet posted about, have all been various shades of enjoyable for different reasons (save for Theroux, which I am absolutely fine not liking because, holy hell, the angry grandpa racism).

WR is… pleasant. WR is… basic. Not basic writing–the writing is fine, though not great. It’s pumpkin spice latte basic. It’s Ugg boots basic. It’s soccer mom basic. It’s “I’m a part-time mom and part-time realtor” basic. Not that she’s literally any of those things.

She’s a standard woman going to standard places. London. Paris. Milan. Sure, she sees a bit more of Italy, but it’s with a tour group.

This is a book that makes women whose children are grown up or almost grown up feel good. Which is not an insult. Many women in America (in my opinion anyway) get married too young and have kids too young. I’m not talking about the “a nineteen year old shouldn’t be raising a baby” too young, I’m talking about the, “hey, you just graduated college and maybe you should move to another town, go backpacking in Europe for the summer, drive around the country, date someone else other than you high school sweetheart who you’ve now been with for the last eight years oh my god.”

Women who jump into the “this is what I should do because it’s what my mom/grandmother/the movies/this book/this actress I look up to/society/insert other thing here said I should do” mentality without question.

From what I can gather, Steinbach did exactly that. And, once her kids were grown and her marriage had failed, she decided to try to get back to herself. To fulfill dreams and urges she had before her I should do.

So it’s a book for all those women in their late thirties to mid-fifties who dream of their I wish I had… that they had exchanged for their I should’s. Steinbach tell them that they still can, maybe, possibly, get those wishes granted.

But I don’t fall into any of her reader demographic categories. I did my Great American Road-Trip. I backpacked through Europe for two months. I’ve spent extensive time in Japan. I’ve run around northern India. I’ve fallen in love and lust again and again. I’ve quit that Big Time Job. I’ve flunked out of college, and gone back again. For fun. Basically, if there’s an I should… I haven’t.

It’s not a matter of pride, of “Look, I haven’t conformed! I’m better than you!” It’s just a matter of personality and upbringing. It’s just who I am, just as those women who have should’d are who they are.

So that’s my disclaimer before I talk about the book’s contents.

Did I like Without Reservations? For the reasons listed above, no, I did not. Was it the worst thing I had ever read? Certainly not. Was I unable to relate? Yes. Completely. 100%. Her approach to things, things she was just learning and experiencing in her fifties(?) made her seem almost childlike. Almost like someone who had grown up on a ranch in the country, then had been dropped in the middle of New York City.

Which was a bit odd. She was/is a journalist. She’s traveled, she’s interviewed so many people, learned so much. Yet, when it came to her personal life, going to Europe was a marvel. Was her wandering through, pleasantly aghast. Naive, almost. A sort of naivety, at least.

All of this was just me not connecting with the story.

Only two things actually bothered me.

First, on the second half of the book, the timeline starts jumping around without warning. There’s no demarcation of the jumps, no announcement, no paragraph break. It’s incredibly disorienting. In one paragraph you’ll be in London, the next, Milan, then a page or two later, back in London. The first half of the book does not contain anything like this, so you aren’t prepared. It kicks you right out of the story. So that’s a formatting/transition complaint.

Second… yes, I know this is her story. It’s her book. It’s her trip. And all the things that happen during it are important. But she meets a man who is described on the back flap of the book as her “soulmate” near the beginning of the story and he never freaking leaves. This is supposed to be about her being an independent woman. It’s in the title. She writes about flying solo and learning about herself and the adventures she’s going to have and all that oomph disappears when her “soulmate” comes into play.

It’s such a stereotype.

Man goes on a trip, he has adventures, makes friends, maybe has a roll in the hay or two. Gets drunk, has a bar fight, encounters a bear, fixes a broken down car. He’s manly.

Woman (usually women) go on a trip to escape a bad marriage, a bad relationship, to get over a divorce or break-up, then find the goddamned perfect love they’ve been looking for the entire time. The journey is no longer about learning about oneself as an individual, but learning about loooooove and oneself as part of this exciting new relationship.

Where are my lady-adventurers who travel because they love travel?

Where are my lady-adventurers who can meet a man on the road and continue on their journey, satiated and ready to begin the next day?

It’s frustrating. When I was compiling The List, many fiction books kept coming into the fray. Every single one of them with a female protagonist began the story with her escape from whatever bad situation life had brought to her.

Why can’t the road just be calling her name? Why does she have to be fleeing? Why does she have to find someone to complete her as she goes?