Without Reservations: The Travels of an Independent Woman

by Alice Steinbach

Published by Random House

352 pages, 2000

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Sentimental Journey

Reviewed by Andrea MacPherson


Without Reservations is a travel memoir by Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Alice Steinbach, detailing her yearlong travels throughout Europe as a self-proclaimed "independent woman."

Deciding she needs a drastic change in her life, Steinbach takes a leave of absence from her job as a journalist to move to France. She envisions the trip as a journey of independence, in which she will attempt to understand what it truly means to be a woman in the middle phase of her life, her children now grown and gone, and herself divorced. She imagines a metamorphosis of self; a year in which she will become a different woman entirely. As such, Steinbach rents a small flat and proceeds to explore her new surroundings and herself.

Steinbach takes the reader on a guided tour of Paris, frequenting small cafés and unknown restaurants as well as some major landmarks, such as the Champs Elysées and the Louvre. Her journalist's eye for detail is noted and appreciated while she is relaying her experiences. She sees fabulous architecture, eats delicious food, has good wine and meets interesting people. She has the quintessential Parisian experience.

However Steinbach does not have the journey she intended. As much as she claims she wants to spend her time alone, discovering independence, she spends the majority of her time seeking out friendships. She meets Liliane, an unusual French woman who takes her out for dinners and influences her newfound fashion sense. And she meets Naohiro, a widowed Japanese man who takes Steinbach to remote, memorable Parisian haunts and becomes a romantic interest for her. Later, in London in summer, Steinbach meets three women who nurse her back to health when she becomes ill; she befriends Jean, an Australian psychoanalyst, ironically, at Freud's house; and she enrolls in classes at Oxford and takes ballroom dancing lessons. Steinbach surrounds herself with people; she never really spends time alone and, subsequently, does not have the time to examine a woman's independence. Steinbach proves quite the opposite: solitude does not encourage newfound independence in her, rather, it fosters a craving for human contact.

And while Steinbach misses her original goal, she still takes her readers on quite a likable travel journey. The book itself is quite beautiful, with color inclusions of European prints and postcards, as well as small details such as reproductions of international stamps. This unusual style is at odds with the typical nature of the book's contents.

Yesterday I had a big breakthrough, one that made me feel like a true Parisienne: I entered the Café Flore as though I belonged there. Instead of moving awkwardly, like a timid outsider, through the crowded terrace, I strode to my table with all the icy hauteur and conspicuous self-regard of Simone de Beauvoir. It seemed to work, this new attitude. Within minutes I assumed my new role as one of the café insiders, passing judgment on all who entered. Is belonging that simple? A matter of attitude? Or is attitude just another form of self-deception?

Steinbach's prose is clean and easy to read; she describes her surroundings with specific ease. Her writing is fluid and quite graceful. Without Reservations is not, however, as engaging as it possibly could be. There is a static tone that is not conducive to good travel writing and there is no real change in Steinbach as a character, as we are lead to expect early on. Other writers have taken on Europe in their writing, to a much more dynamic effect (Suzie Rodriguez's section in Literary Trips on Paris is one excellent example). Steinbach's gentle prose lulls the reader into a sense of peace and thus relates a calm experience. While this makes Without Reservations easy to read, it also fails to ever really grab the reader and risks becoming just another sentimental memory of a brief European escape. | January 2001


Andrea MacPherson is a Vancouver-based writer who recently completed her first novel. Her work has appeared in The Antigonish Review, The Glow Within, Chameleon and Descant. She is the poetry editor for Prism International.