Strictly speaking, I'm not supposed to tell you this, but publishers will sometimes exaggerate the comments on the front of books. It's part of the biz; nobody sends out a new history of WWII with the sales pitch, "Workmanlike! Breaks no new ground! Assumes you just like reading about blowing up Nazis!" Now and again, though, the cover of a book might be all you need.
Take Rachel Shukert's
Everything Is Going to Be Great. The title starts to work, but then the subtitle really gets you: An Underfunded and Overexposed European Grand Tour. Then you have the quote: "If you read only one memoir by a disaffected urban twentysomething Jewish girl this year, make it this one."
The whole presentation works a happy little magic on the typical expectations of "memoir" and "European tour." Just when you reflect on the positivity of the title, the subtitle and quote let you know that this won't be another book about a WASP divorcée's menopausal trip to Italy where a Sardinian goatherd widower reawakens the fires of her passion. There will be youth, indiscretion and poor hostelry. Things are going to go awry and possibly not get taken seriously. It's going to be great.
It really is. Even though there's nothing wrong with the sort of books named above, Shukert offers a welcome alternative that resonates with more readers as something likely to happen to them (or to have happened to them), at least from an economic standpoint. This is the European trip where you're trying to figure yourself out before you start the career, not after you've sold out and made enough money to rent cars large enough for Americans.
The ad hoc nature of the trip immediately feels familiar to the European budget traveler. Shukert takes us from a squalid and disappointing apartment- and love-life in New York City to Vienna, Switzerland and Amsterdam. Her mental embarkation point for this trip could be termed a misguided job decision. A tour as an extra with an insufferably important and artistic director gets her overseas, but a mistakenly unstamped passport allows her to stay there.
We watch her have one of those wise-seeming and quintessentially European love affairs with an older man. She encounters old-world anti-Semitism and the strangeness of a nation whose flea market trinkets can still feature stamps with Nazi eagles. She gets mistaken for a prostitute in Switzerland, crashes for ages with two gay friends in Amsterdam. She buys a bike from a junkie and tries to sell bad American comedy outside the Anne Frank house. Emotionally, it's all over the place, but we all are in our twenties.
Shukert's book is hilarious, so much so that elements that you would expect to fall flat or seem off-putting somehow come through winningly. Take the mini-guides and workshops throughout the book, like, "Are You About to Be Sex-Trafficked? A Checklist." Putting in intermittent study guides or interactive workshopping ideas is something of a cliché in non-fictional humor books, and they're often groaningly bad. Sometimes that happens because these stabs at parody come off like padding, or like three-decade-old riffs on the National Lampoon, or (worst of all) like ways the author or publisher dreamed up to make readers virally promote the book by dragging elements of it into the physical world.
Instead, Shukert takes a familiar form and delivers. What could be low-point recapitulations of the funny bits from earlier in the chapter earn hearty and standalone laughs. I would love to show you why, but I think reprinting any of them would get me fired instantly. It's too bad, because that frankness (admittedly often graphic) is often what makes the book's anxieties, sadness, absurdity and comic pieces work.
Without Shukert's willingness to nakedly describe and even mock herself, some of the inevitable downbeats in her travelogue could seem either histrionic or precious. Conversely, they could also be cause for heartbreak and concern: the girl's obviously drinking a lot, spinning her wheels and making some real mistakes, apart from the obvious ones that invite speculation on sex trafficking. The wise voice, the comic tone that says, "I know where I have erred, and I know it well enough to make you laugh about it," reassures the reader. Things are going to turn out well enough that she can look back on this and laugh, too. Everything is going to be great.
Talking about the book without the lens of its comedy seems like a futile effort. It would make its ending seem saccharine (yes, the title didn't lie), and it would make the hospital visits, the bad dates, the cheap digs, the booze and the wheel-spinning seem too foreboding—too much like an examination of the depths of questioning oneself. But the comedy doesn't deflect; this isn't some ironist's arm's-length attitude toward herself, minimizing the import of herself so that even the disappointments are meaningless. Quite the contrary, Shukert seems almost ruthlessly on point with her humor. She doesn't let go of the errors because remembering them is funny. It's also important.
Ultimately, it's sort of a silly exercise to recommend a book to others on the basis of comedy. We all have different definitions of what makes for something hilarious, which is why I think The Ben Stiller Show was amazing, and everyone else seems to like everything he's done since, despite its making me want to launch the man into the sun.
Thankfully, this book runs the comic gamut, from touching to observational, to slapstick, to crass. Some parts are laugh-out-loud funny, and some inspire a kind of crouching wince of embarrassment, out of sympathy for Shukert. That she engenders a protective feeling from the reader just after she can get a laugh at herself is a testament to the book's heart. Jokes aside, there are still moments where mothers and daughters understand one another — where feelings are hurt, men make grand gestures and health-care systems clash. And it's got a happy ending.
Again, see the title.
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