This book, like the original Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, is a collection of stories built around a “frame narrative,” which in this case is a five-day pilgrimage to the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral by modern-day women who are traveling as part of “Broads Abroad” (a travel group catering to the solo female traveler).
The narrator is Che (named for the Cuban revolutionary), 48 and an only child, who was raised on a commune by her impetuous and free-spirited mother Diana. Diana has just died a surprisingly (for Diana) low-key death from cancer. Che received her mother’s ashes at her condo via UPS along with a note from Diana that “per our agreement, you must now take me to Canterbury.” Che really would not have considered it, except that same day she got a “Dear John” letter from her long-time boyfriend Ned, who said he was leaving Che for another woman.
Che puts her dog in the kennel and takes off for England, to join a tour to Canterbury. There are eight women on the tour, including the guide Tess. They start their walk from Southwark, where Chaucer’s pilgrims also began their journey. Tess asks the women to replicate another feature of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, which is to tell each other stories along the way. As Tess explains:
“Chaucer’s pilgrims told romances . . . They challenged each other to see who could best articulate the nature of true love.”
In Chaucer’s work, the host announced that whoever told the best tale would be treated to a feast at the end of the journey, and Tess makes the same offer. And so the women set out, and each day, one after the other they tell their stories of love. In the process, all of them get to know and care about each other, as well as getting new insights about themselves. Che in particular thinks she has learned valuable lessons from the trip, which she shares with us as the journey draws to a close.
A nice little twist at the end softens the edges of the tale, which ended up being fraught with emotion for all of them.
Evaluation: This seemed like one of those cooking school books except of course the setting was not a cooking school. But the idea was very similar: strangers who come together on some common mission and in the process, get to know each other’s hopes, dreams, sorrows, losses, and triumphs. While this conceit was a nice change from the cooking school setting, the story didn’t wow me. I thought it dragged in parts, and the author herself seemed torn about whether men were a positive or negative force in the world. Nevertheless, it makes a nice light read.
Published by Gallery Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, 2015