It’s been a while since I’ve come across a book that perfectly filled a spot in my soul that I didn’t even know I needed filled until I read it. I was at a Christmas faire at the beginning of November selling books with my friend Steve. He had just received his copy of Letters (he had contributed a piece to the conclusion), and I was marveling at the beautiful job Anderson’s publisher had done with the book’s endpapers (I might have been drooling over them, in fact). The whole book is peppered with Anderson’s incredible photography of France and Spain, but those endpapers…I was smitten. I absolutely had to read the book. It was too lovely to pass up.
Sometimes beautiful books disappoint. So much work goes into the design, but the content doesn’t live up to the reader’s overly high expectations. Not the case here. No. I planned to savor Anderson’s book, a collection of letters she wrote home to friends during her unconventional pilgrimage. It seemed like too dense a topic to burn through, but once I began, I couldn’t stop. I found myself desperate to be transported to the wet cold forests of France, to the hot rocky roads of Spain, to the lush mountain sides, and even to the awkward, perfect, exhausting dinners with strangers (dinners I couldn’t even eat, I should mention, given that I’m lactose intolerant and cannot have red meat or pork!). Her “long walks,” as she thinks of them, are far from perfect. Bad weather, obnoxious walking buddies (for miles and miles and miles), excruciating injuries – she’s plagued with all of them – yet my desire to join her adventure never faltered.
She was searching, in part, for some proof that God exists. Most pilgrims believe in a higher power before they set out; Anderson does not. My impression was of a sensibility both artistic and scientific in nature – something along the lines of Da Vinci or Tim Jenison (if you haven’t watched Tim’s Vermeer, you’re missing out) – a desire to seek and believe in extraordinary things from a mind firmly rooted in tangible reality. At the same time, her appeal is largely in how relatable she is in these letters written from the road She is an ordinary woman pursuing something exceptional.
The result is a book I cherished. I took it with me all day, reading it in the car in the parking lot of a friend’s apartment, then while waiting to pick up my dry-cleaning. I reread some of the letters later in the week and only grudgingly returned Steve’s copy to him after I’d kept it three weeks longer than promised. Reading about Anderson’s journey was a perfect escape from Christmas shopping, from the return of an ant infestation, from the daunting list of things that must be done before we leave for an early and extended trip for the holidays. Hers was Europe the way I imagined it when I was small – the slow-paced day, the café au lait at dawn and the wine at night, and the people both strange and civilized. Her world, for those weeks, was one I had imagined well before and was delighted to see, for a moment, come to life.