"You Americans," says a minor but pivotal character in Vendela Vidas' third novel, "you think everything has to do with you." She's supposed to be giving protagonist Yvonne some much-needed shock therapy, but, as far as Western literature is concerned, she's right. It seems that every minute another author is employing some nation's culture as a backdrop for their protagonist's "journey of self-discovery."
In "The Lovers," Yvonne -- a widowed history teacher spending a month in a Turkish beach town to remember her honeymoon -- is only the next one in a procession traveling Under the Tuscan Sun to Eat, Pray (and) Love, taking its Passage to India to sort out personal issues.
Settling into a rented summer home, Yvonne finds the goings-on of the adults around her both disturbing and intrusive; the landlord has left embarrassing evidence of his extramarital sex life lying around, and Ozlem, his wife, also has strange boundaries, attempting to draw Yvonne into her confidence. Although the widow prides herself on being a seasoned traveler, she's nonetheless wounded when a tour boat operator she meets invites her on a boat tour and then expects payment. Likewise, an American couple let her down by being insufficiently thunderstruck by the story of her husband's death. The only person she deems worthy of connection is a little boy she meets on the beach. "He would have listened with awe and attention," she imagines. Odd, since the boy, though a charmer, speaks no English.
Grief, and a respectable dose of guilt, are Yvonne's polestars, and navigating by them she sails past the history, architecture, politics and spirituality of Turkey, observant but untouched. Uninterested in conversations about Turkey's entrance into the E.U., Yvonne finds references to what most people would know is the Armenian genocide puzzling and unpleasant. Likewise, the thousand-year-old cave city of Cappadocia -- one of the world's wonders -- and its ancient orthodox churches seem to merely echo her distraction. It is there that Yvonne attains the resolution (i.e. "closure") for which she's been searching. Unfortunately, there is no indication that she takes the words to heart.
Yvonne is not the worst of this genre's affluent wanderers. Books like "Sophie's Choice" and "The Constant Gardener," where genocide is used as a backdrop for the protagonist's sexual or spiritual awakening, leave one coated in a stale residue of ethical idiocy. Vendela's novel isn't that offensive, and Yvonne does have some rudimentary self-awareness, acknowledging that grief has made her "twisted and selfish." Unfortunately, she never quite accepts the labyrinth of self in which she's trapped. At the end of the book she has learned little of the world around her except that marriage wasn't perfect and her daughter, Aurelia, was not the sole cause. These are valid lessons, but one this sojourner needed no journey to learn.
Emily Carter is the author of "Glory Goes and Gets Some."