With Summer closely approaching many people will embark on vacation travels here in the US or abroad. But if you’re like me and you can’t scrounge up the money for an epic Eurotrip, then let me recommend experiencing a nice little vacation vicariously through reading. There are many great reads that include the journey aspect within the narrative. But my current pick at the moment is Kate Hattemer’s The Land of 10,000 Madonnas.
To best explain this novel’s premise, I’ll simply refer to the book jacket’s blurb:
“Jesse left behind five grieving friends – and five plane tickets abroad. As they backpack through Europe [Germany and Italy] with only their secrets for company, will they be able to fulfill Jesse’s dying wish?”
Now, the rest of this post will be a review so if you don’t want any spoilers, I suggest you come back to this post after you’ve read the book. However, if you’re still here let me tell you what I enjoyed and disliked about this book.
Let’s start with why I enjoyed reading this book. The story’s concept of Jesse sending his friends to find his birth mother, who had left Jesse when he was a baby, after his death is fascinating and engaging. It had my eyes glued to the page, reading to see if this gang of friends would find this mystical mother. As the group discovers clues about the mother’s whereabouts in Europe, the pacing of the novel subtly picks up and before you know it you’ve already read 50 – 100 – 150 pages. And what I loved about its realistic, life-like climax, (*SPOILER ALERT*) is that they didn’t find the mother! Because, that’s not what’s central to this story – the story is about Jesse and how his life and death impacted those that loved and cared for him. Jesse is beautifully woven into his friends’ lives and Hattemer’s writing only highlights the themes of life, death, and friendship. And I also liked how the characters initially butted heads and disliked each other at the beginning, understandable given the circumstances they’re thrown into. But as the group travel, they grow to trust each other and grow up a little, which illustrated great character development that I was fond of.
Now for the nitpicking. My biggest complaint is that the story is told in close 3rd-person for the five friends and 1st-person for Jesse’s narrative. Except for Jesse’s chapters, it was sometimes difficult to initially establish who was speaking and/or who’s point of view it was from. And I think the reason this was difficult was because the narrative style (diction, tone, grammar) didn’t change from character to character. They all had the same vernacular and tone of voice, which didn’t work for me because the characters varied greatly in education, social background, and age that this singular tone and style of voice could’ve been more varied. And my next complaint wasn’t really a deterrent from reading, but I kept wondering if maybe there were too many characters/friends in the story overall. It just felt very crowded to have six people’s point of view compete for my attention. I’m not sure what I would recommend: have only two POV’s (Jesse’s and one of his friends), have an omnipotent 3rd-person narrator, or just eliminate two characters/friends entirely. At the moment, I’m leaning towards the latter choice and eliminating two characters since I felt that at certain parts of the novel some of the characters weren’t really that different from each other. In the novel, the five friends are made up of three of Jesse’s cousins (two boys and one girl), Jesse’s girlfriend, and Jesse’s best friend (boy). But the girl-cousin and the girlfriend felt oddly the same character split into two. And three cousins on the trip? Really? It just felt excessive.
But despite my nit-picking I still recommend this book and I think it’s a fresh read. Just to foreworn you though, there is a lot of references to obscure Medieval and Renaissance art (like enough to be sitting through a lecture in an Art History class at a University) and the teenage characters tend to all speak with a very collegiate vernacular (like enough extra SAT prep words to help you accidently study for your test). Even though this wasn’t a deal breaker for me, I thought I’d warn you about this style of writing in case it’s not your taste.
So, I hope you’ll give this book a chance and enjoy reading it (hopefully by the side of a pool on a nice, sunny day) to kickstart your summer reading.