Fans of Sue Monk Kidd’s novels “The Secret Life of Bees” and “The Mermaid Chair,” as well as her nonfiction books, will be pleased with Traveling with Pomegranates, the new memoir she’s penned with her daughter, Ann Kidd Taylor. However, they will probably be the only ones.
It’s an unrelentingly saccharine book, in which the two writers take turns spoon-feeding readers the Meaning of It All. No symbol is left unexplained (at length, and with frequency); no opportunity to preach is untaken. The unexplored life may not be worth living, as Socrates once said, but it turns out the overexplored life is no picnic, either.
“Traveling with Pomegranates” details a series of mother-daughter trips to Greece and France between 1998 and 2000, a time in which both women were struggling to redefine themselves, as well as their relationship to each other. Sue has just turned 50 and realized that she wants to write fiction – a sort of double whammy, as she is struggling to let go of her youth and simultaneously find the courage to try her hand at something dramatically new. Ann is fresh out of college and stunned by an overpowering uncertainty over what to do with her life. Their visits to places associated with Greek myths, ancient goddesses, and Christian saints give them insight into their problems and bring them closer together, both as mother and daughter, and as two adult women.
Admittedly, it’s an interesting premise. The problems lie in its execution. While both authors draw some genuinely interesting parallels between their experiences and the timeless stories of their host countries (the myth of Demeter and Persephone is particularly apt), neither is willing to let the reader make his or her own interpretations as to what their meaning might be. The result is akin to being beaten with a pillow; repetitious and, in the end, unaffecting.
Language is also a problem. For every striking turn of phrase or sentence that hits home, there are five instances of pure melodrama. An example: Of an incident involving a vulgar comment directed at her kneeling daughter, Monk Kidd writes, “I only vaguely understood at the time the ways that I myself was on my knees, how in need I was of taking back my soul as a woman.” Talk of the soul, what it means to be a woman, finding one’s purpose, and the “Eternal Divine” is given far more time than the actual business of the authors’ lives. As a result, the reader doesn’t get to know them as people, but rather as navel-gazing pontificators spouting Oprah-like philosophical musings.
In addition, the book reads a lot like the diary entries upon which it was presumably based. Precious little action or conversation is described; instead, we have page after page of internal musings. To be fair, cerebral material does have its place in literature, and certainly it belongs more in memoir than it does in fiction. But the best memoirs are the ones that read just like fiction – they suck the reader in completely, transporting him or her into the author’s experience of life and returning them slightly changed.
There is no “show” in chapters composed largely of free association; there is only “tell.” And the really good stories, the ones that get under people’s skin and move them to laugh or cry or chuck the book across the room – those stories don’t tell anyone what their message is or how they should feel about things. They simply show what happened, and why, and leave the rest to the audience. There’s something about “Traveling with Pomegranates” that feels as if Monk Kidd and Kidd Taylor don’t trust their readers to draw the right conclusions, so they spell everything out in painstakingly large letters to make sure everyone’s on the same page (so to speak).
It’s really too bad that “Traveling with Pomegranates” doesn’t deliver on its promises, because the themes it touches on (parents and children, aging, coping with change) are universal and constant sources of mystery in the human experience. But, with the exception of Monk Kidd’s established fans, few readers are likely to find new insight or inspiration in this sugary, overdone trifle.
Kathryn Perry is a freelance writer in Portland, Me.