We begin with Zoe’s arrival in France from L.A., to visit one of her oldest friends after the sudden death of her husband and the subsequent shock of learning he left the family penniless. Along the way, a scallop shell pendant in a shop window calls to her, and she learns it’s a symbol of the camino. It seems important that she buy the pendant, even though it blows through a large chunk of her dwindling funds. So begins an impulsive journey, with not even the minimal preparations of getting guidebooks and proper walking shoes or learning about accommodations along the way. The universe will provide.
Meanwhile, British engineer, Martin, has been preparing for months. He’s invented a trolley for carrying belongings over rough terrain—say, for pilgrims with bad knees—and he’s looking for an investor to commercialize it. Tens of thousands of people hike the camino every year, and many of them are on the older side, so it seems a ready starter market. He’s lined up three potential investors and what better way to demonstrate the cart’s functionality than to hike the camino, blogging as he goes, and building interest?
An accidental meeting before Zoe and Martin begin their walks, leave both with poor impressions of each other. So, when they discover they’re on the same route and starting out at the same time, they don’t fancy being walking companions and go their separate ways.
Thus, we’re set up for a romantic comedy and we wonder: How will they change their opinions of each other? And how and when will they meet again and get together?
A romance it is and comedic it is, but a typical romantic comedy, it’s not. This is a story in layers, delving deeper into the marrow of each character, the further we travel with them.
The book is written in alternating chapters, one in Zoe’s voice and the next in Martin’s, a device that allows us to see each character through their own eyes and through the eyes of the other.
At first, we think Zoe is simply grieving the loss of her husband; but we learn that the relationship had an element of expediency, and this complicates the mourning. We learn about her relationship with her daughters; a deep, unhealed rift with her mother; her husband’s financial struggles—and the possibility that his death was not all it seemed. Martin is divorced and has lost all his equity in the process, his job in France has just ended, and his focus is simply on selling the cart to the highest bidding investor so he can gain financial freedom. Very straightforward. But . . . he’s never dealt with the issues with his ex-wife and his 17-year-old daughter is crying out for attention with increasingly self-destructive behaviours.
Neither Zoe nor Martin are walking the camino for religious reasons. Zoe parted ways with the church long ago, and Martin is a confirmed atheist. But in their own ways, they each need enlightenment, forgiveness, new beginnings—redemption, in fact.
The book is a slow build, so it took me a while to realize that I was reading a story that travels into the heart of darkness of each character. Around mid-point, I stopped wondering how the lovers would get together and began to be far more interested in Zoe’s and Martin’s journeys into their real reasons for walking, and the slow unveiling of their true characters—both to themselves and to each other.
I’ve walked. Nothing like the camino, only two weeks in Tuscany; but I still related. To the desire to have profound insights and eureka moments, but finding instead that your thoughts are occupied with locating the next waymarker to make sure you don’t get lost, and tending to socks and pack straps so you don’t get blisters. To being honestly, ravenously hungry at the end of a day of walking and enjoying simple food in a different, delightful way. To moments of bliss just seeing the next dazzling vista. To moments of panic, coming suddenly face-to-face with very large dogs.
The story, like the camino itself, has many twists, with diverging and intersecting paths; it meets and leaves behind a vast number of memorable characters; loosens a thread here, tightens it again there, keeping Zoe and Martin in tension—right to the very satisfying end.
This is a story which takes the reader on an unexpected journey and, like the camino, stays with you long after you’ve come to the end of the road.