Monday, November 17, 2008

Given my obsession with all things British (which no one in my vicinity seems to share), I was delighted to discover a book titled My Love Affair with England: A Traveler's Memoir by Susan Allen Toth. It would seem as if the author and I would have a great deal in common. I have read many traveler's memoirs, and I was expecting this one to be especially relevant to my interests. Unfortunately, the author put in many of her own experiences and life challenges instead of concentrating on stories about England. While someone like Bill Bryson can do that in a humorous and entertaining manner, Toth's revelations are embarrassing and cringe-inducing. I kept wondering, "Why in the world would she tell anyone this, let alone put it in a book for all to read?" We got to hear about how as an under-prepared teacher she took a group of 10 students to England, and basically turned it into a sight-seeing tour (since none of the students had read any of the books on the assigned reading list). Great if you are a student, but not especially academically challenging.

We are also treated to a long and involved story about how she lived in England for 6 horrific months in 1978. Her nanny turned out not to like the child she was supposed to be caring for, and eventually left early. As a replacement, the author's mother came to England. This led to all sorts of blow ups of the "Mother, I just need to be alone for a while!" sort.

The revelation that definitely left me with the "too much information" screech on my lips occurred in the chapter titled, "A View from Waterloo Bridge." In this chapter, we learn of her impending marriage and her visit to the doctor for a "premarital exam" and a "prescription for birth-control pills." We also get to learn the doctor told her, "You're awfully tight. Don't expect this to be easy." To further entertain us, the author informs us that during her wedding ceremony, "I began to bleed."

You may ask yourself, as I repeatedly did, what any of that has to do with England? I'm sorry to say, I read the book, and I still don't know. Why a book dealing with personal and professional struggles should be called "My Love Affair with England" is beyond me.

When she does talk about England and her travels there, Toth often frequently doesn't have a lot to say which is positive. For instance, she details her daughter's experience as an exchange student in England, with a family who refused to turn on any heat, kept count of the number of cookies in the house, and sent their children to monitor her daughter in case she was stealing food. Then there is the terrible saga of 1978, including a detailed chapter and referred to throughout the book with (one would imagine) a definite shudder on the part of the author. During that awful six months, the author suffered with the cold temperatures, the lack of central heating and the long treks to the grocery store. Oh the humanity!

Eventually, the author remarried (the first guy didn't work out we're told time and again), and her second husband agreed to take on driving duties during their British vacations. Once she was able to get out and see parts of the country that were more off the beaten track, she became more fond of England. However, by that time, the reader is exasperated and bored (if you manage to stick with it that long). She does tend to go on and on about footpaths, walking sticks and gardens.

All in all, the book might have been enjoyable if it had been presented in a different way -- more as a biography with travel stories thrown in (on occasion). As it was, with the title of the book prominently mentioning England, the reader ends up feeling misled. I had expected the book to be mostly about England, not Ms. Toth. Perhaps a better title would have been, "My Love Affair with Myself, with Occasional Trips to England Thrown In."

Final Verdict for My Love Affair with England: One Gherkin, for being a mis-titled and disappointing "travel" book


Anonymous said...

I read this book about 10 years ago and I disagree with you.

I enjoyed the personal stories and being male, enjoyed the 'too personal' details (I was a teenager...). I loved reading about her adventures in England. So much, I read her second book "England as You Like it."

Looking back, she probably did talk too much about herself, but I still enjoyed it. It wasn't ALL bad.

Lisanne624 said...

I'm probably in the minority, since she's had lots of subsequent books, so she must have a following!

Anonymous said...


I picked it up last year and could not get into it either. I didn't finish it.

Lisanne624 said...

Melissa, I'm glad I wasn't the only one! I did finish it, but it was hard going . . .

About Me

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I'm a librarian who is interested in all things British. I try to visit London as often as possible, and am always planning my next trip. I lived in Sweden for a few years with my Swedish husband, so the occasional Swedish reference may occur . . .

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The Gherkin Scale

5gherkinsb Brilliant!

4gherkinsb Good, innit?

3gherkinsb Fair to middlin'

2gherkinsb Has some good points

1gherkin Oi! Wot you playin' at?

0gherkins3Don't be givin' me evils!

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