A Review of Joan Frank’s Try to Get Lost: Essays on Travel and Place
March 9, 2020 § 6 Comments
By Elizabeth Frank
I met Joan Frank (no relation) in person just once. We were in a café in Florence, eating bean soup, sharing insights about the publishing industry and our impressions of Florence: the ubiquitous selfie-taking college students on their junior year abroad (whom her husband, the playwright Bob Duxbury, was there to teach), the dense herds of tourists (not, of course, us), the necessity of purchasing things which came free at home, like potable water and disposable shopping bags, the fact that vital stores were closed all afternoon, and that the homeless wore flowing hoods and velvet skirts, like extras in an opera.
Many of these annoyances Frank includes in her essay collection Try to Get Lost: Essays on Travel and Place, which was the recent winner of the River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Prize and published by the University of New Mexico Press. The essay “In Case of Firenze,” originally published by the TriQuarterly Review is the one which provides the title “try to get lost.”
Frank does get lost, and so will you. The foreign and the familiar are met with the same level of attention and insight. To Frank, “place becomes, finally, the only subject . . . obsession, raison d’etre, riddle.”
More than once, she refers to Shirley Hazzard and I felt, reading Frank, what I feel reading Hazzard, an inclination not to turn the pages to see what happens next but to dwell on the page, to linger in the evocation of scents, vistas, and emotions. Her observations are precise, witty, charming even at their crankiest. Always, she situates you in a specific world (place becomes riddle). In enumerating what France does poorly and what it does well, wine is obviously in the “well” column. Any traveler will tell you that in France, wine is inexpensive and everywhere. Frank tells you that wine is “delicious, kindly priced, wholesome and fundamental as milk.” With “kindly priced,” we are in Frank’s France, under the guardianship of benevolent caretakers. “To travel is to be a fool for awhile,” she declares, to give up control, to give up preoccupied oblivion to one’s surroundings. Travel demands that we pay attention, makes the obvious remarkable.
“North and south yield logical products of their geographical données,” she writes of France. “Butter above, olive oil below; white wines and champagne above, Bordeaux and varietal reds below (berries which have to work to exist) – for all of which we are, without question, better.”
Not everything is benevolent or makes us better. Luggage, that necessary evil, is both heavy and flimsy. Air travel, while admittedly a luxury, is a taxing ordeal. The sun, the entire point of traveling for some, can burn down without pity or relent. Her husband’s penchant for teaching semesters abroad and his visits to his native England, coupled with Frank’s own wanderlust (place becomes obsession), provides Frank with many landscapes to detail in her luminous prose, but she doesn’t require “exotic” inspiration to paint a compelling scene.
Her account of a visit to her childhood home in suburban Phoenix, the “dry, supine, block-on-blockness” of the squat houses of the old neighborhood, is the collection’s most heartbreaking essay, as popsicle-and-lawn-sprinkler, sun-drenched childhood bliss darkens into the interior of a shattering lifelong trauma.
The collection’s merriest piece concerns Frank’s ritual, with her husband, of setting up cocktails and snacks in their motel rooms on the road in order to watch HGTV, although they don’t fit the channel’s demographic of trendy young consumer in pursuit of gleaming surfaces. Their own home (the word “home” contains, she notes, “the meditative OM sound, a sustained vibration that seems to inject our bones with an irresistible promise—sanctuary, safety, peace, freedom”) is a “paid-off 1930s bungalow bought thirty years ago . . . shabby and worn.” (They prefer to spend their money on travel.) HGTV shows like Property Brothers and Fixer Upper follow a three-act narrative structure: the find, the renovation, the reveal of the new, the sparkling, the shiplap. Traveling, Frank studies homes she passes, wondering about the lives of those inside. In her rented room, she is absorbed by the redemption drama of HGTV, which “suggests it’s showing us exactly that: who lives there, and what kind of lives they—we—are having.”
Place becomes raison d’etre. Place is, in the end, the only subject. Joan Frank is a vastly compelling and lyrical guide.
Elizabeth Bales Frank’s work has appeared in The Sun, Barrelhouse, Epiphany, Post Road, The Writing Disorder and other publications. She earned her MLIS from Pratt Institute in 2018 and encourages you to support your local librarians, especially if you live in Missouri. Her novel Censorettes will be published by Stonehouse Publishing in November 2020.