In 1991, Kimberly Meyer decided—in a deliberate fashion—not to have an abortion, and, twenty-one years later, she traveled with her now grown daughter from Germany to Egypt via the Levant. “On the trip,” she writes, “I had been trying to return to something essential with myself, maybe build some new life on that scaffolding” (296). And so, Meyer assesses whether or not she has come to terms with a youthful choice determining the rest of her life.
Meyer became pregnant as a college senior, which she found out after having broken up with her boyfriend. At that time, she felt “the need to travel and experience the beauty and mystery of other worlds, other cultures” (10). Her decision to have the baby led her to “cry and cry, because I know…there will be no Peace Corps, no Teach for America, no backpacking across Europe, no bohemian-explorer-intellectual kind of life” (11).
When Ellie, the baby, grows into a woman, Meyer still feels a strong desire to capture something of this bohemian-explorer-intellectual kind of life that she gave up. She invites her college-age daughter to accompany her as she traces the journey of Felix Fabri, a medieval monk who traveled from Ulm, a vibrant commercial entrepôt in the Holy Roman Empire, to Mamluk Jerusalem, a profitable pilgrimage site drawing Muslims, Jews and Christians.
The Book of Wanderings: A Mother-Daughter Pilgrimage traces the author’s remarkable foreign travels, which she deliberately organizes to replace the adventures she relinquished in raising Ellie. Fabri is just an excuse, flimsy-at-best, for a journey that will end in the Sinai Desert of Egypt.
Much of Meyer’s trip transpires in the Arab world, a region that Western writers tend to Orientalize. The term “Orientalism” signifies preconceived notions of Western superiority transferred through literature, and these stereotypes, when perpetuated and passed over time, generate a Western bias that demeans Arabs and justifies colonialism and other types of foreign interventions.
Western travel writing—like that of Fabri or that of Meyer—has long contributed to Orientalist traditions. Meyer engages honestly with the misinformation passed to her by the American media. She admits to her tendencies to view the Middle East through a prism of backwardness and violence. She worries, for example, that “the Bedouin in the Sinai would hold us hostage, or maybe they would abandon us and we would die of thirst” (39).
I can relate to the challenges posed in writing a travelogue set largely in the Arab world. A specialist in Middle Eastern and North African history, I made a choice to live a bohemian-explorer-intellectual kind of life. I am now processing my own midlife transition by following in the footsteps of Edith Wharton. Like Meyer, I must come to terms with my own contribution to what is a tainted literary genre. Meyer’s book provides food-for-thought as I review the journey of Edith Wharton, a Western traveler and my Gilded Age doppelganger.
Meyer did not set pen to paper in order to illuminate the life of Fabri or the history and culture of the Middle East. Instead, the author engages in an emotional journey of self-discovery. Reflecting on her home in Texas, she acknowledges a “restlessness in me that couldn’t be completely stilled by the quaint old bungalow, and the fruit trees we had planted out front, and the adored children, and even by him, the man who had rescued me from being alone” (28).
Far from home, the foreign lands—whether the urban bustle of Cairo, the vast expanses of the Sinai Peninsula—heighten Meyer’s senses, allowing her to think deeply about her past as well as her present place in the world. ”When we depart from our homes and from those we love,” Meyer writes, “when we travel to places unfamiliar to us, home remains like a film covering our eyes that we can’t quite wipe away. We see through its lens” (46).
The strangeness of the land and its people allow Meyer to resolve any latent ambivalence caused by her choice to have a child. For me, the book provides insights into the nostalgic and sometimes wistful melancholy generated by our passage to middle age. Meyers consolidates a torrent of raw emotion into graceful prose, and readers witness how she comes to terms with the unplanned pregnancy that determined the course of her life.
Meyers is a truth-teller who is not afraid to wrestle with her own emotional vulnerabilities. “What did I want?,” Meyers muses toward the end of her trip, “To be essential to other human beings or to be free to live a bohemian-explorer-intellectual kind of life? These were mutually exclusive options, even if we were pretending with this trip that I could have both. I’d chosen motherhood” (222). Ultimately, Meyer embraces her past, providing hard-earned insights for us all into midlife self-acceptance.
The Book of Wanderings: A Mother-Daughter Pilgrimage. Kimberly Meyer. New York, Boston and London: Little, Brown and Company, 2015. 354 pages.