Due to the weather, some customers may experience late delivery of The Roanoke Times. We apologize for the delay.
By Andrea Thalasinos. Forge Books. 368 pages. $24.99
Thursday, August 1, 2013
Near the end of “Traveling Light,” Andrea Thalasinos’ second novel, the narrative provides us with its fundamental theme: “There was nothing to lose because, in a way, she’d already gained everything by having lost it all.”
Thalasinos, a professor of sociology at Madison College in Wisconsin and native New Yorker, creates an engaging story, a good summer read, about Paula Makaikis’ journey of personal discovery. Stuck for 10 years in a third unsuccessful marriage, this time to a hoarder who is an accomplished physicist at Columbia University, fate in the tradition of classical Greek literature sends Paula into new exterior and interior territory.
The novel begins in New York City. A friend, an emergency room doctor aptly named Celeste and nicknamed “Heavenly,” phones Paula in need of assistance as she deals with a dying and indigent Greek patient who speaks no English. The patient turns out to be a well-known and, as we learn, important character from Paula’s past.
Theo, Greek for uncle, was a harmless but seemingly homeless man who wandered around Paula’s Greek-American neighborhood. His dog, Fotis, which Paula explains to Celeste means “light” in Greek, has been impounded. Paula takes it upon herself to save the dog. Thus the gods intervene in her life.
Paula’s journey with Fotis, “traveling with light,” so to speak, demonstrates the ways in which the animal-human link can reveal much about life. We have become good at explaining the world in rational terms, but other truths of existence elude us.
“[T]he animals already know by instinct/we’re not comfortably at home/in our translated world,” the great German-language poet Rainer Maria Rilke says in the first of his “Duino Elegies.”
After arranging for a leave of absence from her position as director of the Center for Immigrant Studies at NYU, Paula plans to visit one of her graduate school professors in California but discovers that he has retired and moved to Thunder Bay in Ontario, Canada. On her way there, her bond with Fotis deepens and her perspective on her past life shifts. Her understanding of all aspects of her past, including her relationship with her mother, will change dramatically.
She stops in Grand Marais in Minnesota on the edge of Lake Superior and spontaneously answers a help-wanted ad for a part-time job at a wildlife rescue center. Her appreciation for the instinctive and natural world of animal life develops further as she deals with wounded eagles, owls and a range of other wildlife. She learns that Rick Gunnersson, who runs the center and is perhaps a companion soul, also lives as a refugee from the material world. He left his previous life as a lawyer to establish the center.
Though emotionally engaging, the novel does have its flaws. Our willing suspension of disbelief often stretches to breaking. Paula, because of her current marriage, has accumulated enough money to buy a car for cash. She has the freedom and other resources to simply leave, which proves a little too easy for the narrative. Her reaction to her husband’s hoarding disorder at the end of the novel seems exaggerated and melodramatic.
The novel’s symbolism becomes heavy-handed, too. Paula is organizing a conference on the ways immigrants adapt to new lives, she buys a Ford “Escape” to set out on her adventure, she treasures a cameo pin of the Greek goddess Psyche (soul) and she ends up living in Grand Marais, which according to Rick means “safe harbor.”
The core of the novel, however, Paula’s relationship with her dog and other animals and the ways she describes the natural world in general, remains appealing. The emotional journey to find a place in the world — for in truth we are all immigrants when it comes to living comfortably and appropriately on this planet — rings true.
Weather JournalMany very icy despite 'bust' claims