Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Graeme Simsion, Anne Buist - Two Steps Forward

Zoe, a sometime artist, is from California. Martin, an engineer, is from Yorkshire. Both have ended up in picturesque Cluny, in central France. Both are struggling to come to terms with their recent past—for Zoe, the death of her husband; for Martin, a messy divorce. Looking to make a new start, each sets out alone to walk two thousand kilometres from Cluny to Santiago, in northwestern Spain, in the footsteps of pilgrims who have walked the Camino—the Way—for centuries. The Camino changes you, it’s said. It’s a chance to find a new version of yourself. But can these two very different people find each other? In this smart, funny and romantic journey, Martin’s and Zoe’s stories are told in alternating chapters by husband-and-wife team Graeme Simsion and Anne Buist. Two Steps Forward is a novel about renewal—physical, psychological and spiritual. It’s about the challenge of walking a long distance and of working out where you are going. And it’s about what you decide to keep, what you choose to leave behind and what you rediscover.

Comment: I got aware of this book years ago, probably because of author Graeme Simsion. I had read three books by him before this one and only one wasn't up to my liking. I was curious to read this one, also because of the theme, the Path of St James, or the Camino, which is the pilgrimage to Santiago of Compostela, the city where it is said the remains of the apostle James are buried.

In this book we follow the paths of two characters, American Zoe and British Martin, as they depart from Cluny, a French city, instead of the usual starting points, although as we keep seeing, anyone can start wherever they feel like. Zoe and Martin meet before they departure but they don't seem to get along and their journeys only overlap sometimes but it will get to a point where they can't avoid each other anymore. Those who have done the Path say it will change you and, considering the distance, it will give people time to think and make decisions. Both Zoe and Martin faced complicated situations but will they be open to any lesson the Path wants to teach them?

There are plenty of sources out there where people can know more about the pilgrimage to Compostela and why, nowadays, most people do it for spiritual or personal reasons, rather than the religious intent of the monks from past centuries. There's a whole set up for the Path, whether one chooses the traditional one, known as "french path" or any of the other secondary paths but the aim is always the same: to reach some kind of closure or goal when arriving at Compostela. Since this can be quite a touristic journey too, there are times where it's impossible to have the solitude many probably imagine but it must be a memorable experience. If anyone is interested, here's the wikipedia link, but of course there are many other sources with personal narratives which might give you better notions about it.

I'm actually quite fascinated by this idea of walking to ease up one's mind, to try to find some kind of message or goal or meaning. I think I wouldn't mind trying but, like many pilgrims probably agree with, the most rewarding way to do it must be the traditional one, where the pilgrim does the whole effort. However, that means time (usually three months for the traditional routes), money and motivation. I confess I feel a little lazy to seriously consider it, plus the time factor is tricky... I have also read other books, two autobiographical, and this an idea I have had for some time...perhaps one day...

Ok, so now back to this book...
This is a book written by a couple and it makes sense they have chosen to present the story in alternate chapters, from Martin and Zoe's perspectives. They have had different paths in life, they meet when both come from dealing with emotional wounds and their personalities don't seem to match very well. However, perhaps because this has a slight aura of romance, or because the authors have done the Path and wanted to convey part of their own experience, Zoe and Martin at some point help each other and we can see how much alike they are, in what matters.

Since each one tells their side of things, we not only have an idea of how their interactions with others influence them but also how the experiences they have in the Path make them work on their issues. I especially liked one detail, which I think might be overlooked by other books, especially the autobiographical ones, where people focus on the "goal", and not much (or not only) on the practicalities of walking thousands of km, which is the fact not everyone in the Path or in the places where pilgrims stop have a, let's call it "benevolent state of mind". Zoe and Martin have had some less than good experiences and that's life for sure but I liked it this wasn't sugarcoated, as if just doing the path would immediately be the best journey ever.

I had a good time reading this book and I liked several aspects of it, I liked how detailed some things were, which obviously means the author have to know how it was done. They included a note at the end explaining they have done the Path twice. What I think wasn't as well executed was the end. After all those pages seeing the protagonists going though physical and emotional challenges, the end felt rushed. They both had to deal with daily life and obligations but from the end of the Path in Compostela and all that it meant for them, until the last page it felt as if no time enough passed. The epilogue is hopeful but not definite. It's not that this is a bad thing, only it feels under done compared with the rest.

All in all, and interesting read, many even more interesting characters with all they are suppose to signify (if one reads it that way) in relation to the protagonists. I liked Martin and Zoe for the most part, more for the journey and what they lived through, rather than the romance, which is one of the "under done" elements for me but, then again, that isn't supposed to be the big endgame in this. I think it's a good story for those who want some fiction into a real life possibility.
Grade: 8/10

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