This is the seventh in a series of posts about novels for young readers that transport American characters into other cultures and countries. For suggesting Wanderlove, thanks to Carole Soden in Carpenteria, Ca.
Kirsten Hubbard’s Wanderlove is the story of an awkward, unconfident 18-year-old LA girl who, having been painfully discarded by an artist boyfriend, suppresses her own love for drawing and heads out alone on a trip the two had planned into Central America. Soon after, Bria ditches the tour group she’d signed on with and begins an unmapped adventure with a pair of young free-spirited backpackers — and then with just one, an enigmatic boy named Rowan.
Over the course of more than 300 pages, Bria ... becomes cooler. Becomes a backpacker. Rediscovers her drawing talent, and ... well, as for the boy, what happens is not so hard to predict. Nor is the whole thing. It’s a nice enough romance/self-discovery story, even if the characters never fully come to life — and even though Bria, in visiting Guatemala and then a party-central island in Belize, never interacts with a local person who’s not serving her or selling to her. Obsessed with her own drama, she never learns a thing about the cultures she’s moving through. And that’s a little sad.
I was a backpacker. I traveled and lived overseas for a good bit of my twenties, and I was also caught up in my own dramas and search for meaning and self — but I think I learned something about the people and places I encountered. Sure, most of the people I met and friends I made were fellow travelers, and sure, most of us gravitate toward people like ourselves; but the idea of backpacking travel is to reach past that. To push ourselves beyond ourselves and our small worlds.
Bria never does. She idealizes backpackers, and Wanderlove does too. If that encourages more young people to open up and try the romance of traveling without a formal program or itinerary, that’s a good thing. Maybe a very good thing, in this era when we so much need to discover what’s beyond our own culture.
But for the discovery itself — for popping the little, self-reflective bubbles we each carry around ... I would, I have to say, suggest looking elsewhere.