The Wishing Trees, by John Shors
I'm a huge John Shors fan, having now read four out of the five novels he's published. I feel an affinity for Shors, since he got engaged to his wife while they were teaching in Japan (similar to my situation with Mike). I especially loved Beneath a Marble Sky and Beside a Burning Sea, and I've recommended those books to (and purchased them for) many friends.
When I began this book, I felt emotionally affected and a bit drained by it. Ian is an Australian businessman living in New York, and he has recently lost his beloved wife Kate to cancer. Like the author and like me, Kate and Ian met while teaching in Japan and traveled throughout Asia. Several months after Kate's death, Ian reads a letter Kate had written for his birthday, in which she urges him to take their 10-year-old daughter Mattie on a journey back to the countries where they had traveled together. It made me think about my own life and how blessed I am to have an intact, healthy family. Mike and I have always talked about returning to Japan and other Asian countries someday and hope to show our children some of our old haunts, so it felt more than a little bit eerie to read about someone who had died and never got to make the return trip with her child.
Ian and Mattie travel to Japan, Nepal, Thailand, India, Hong Kong, Vietnam, and Egypt, and open messages from Kate along the way. They meet local people, helping some along the way (such as a Thai sex worker and an Indian orphan in Varanasi). I enjoyed the descriptions of Japan, India, Hong Kong, and Thailand the most, as those were the countries we also visited. I remember visiting the picturesque, nearly abandoned island of Koh Samet and spending a few luxurious, idyllic days on a beach. (I'm sure it's changed dramatically since 1987!)
In a nutshell, here are my criticisms of the book: Ian and Mattie (and in fact, Kate) are far too perfect. They didn't seem like realistic people to me. They are absolutely soaked in grief, which I know is very real when you have lost a loved one...but at times it got excessive. Ian is furious at Kate for asking him to return to the places they'd traveled with Mattie, and he goes on and on about that. I would think he would want to honor his beloved wife's last dying wish. Also, Ian's Australian lingo was over the top. I am married to a Brit and I know a lot of Australians (including my sister-in-law), and they don't talk like this, saying "good onya," "bloody," "fancy," "ankle biter," and "walkabout" constantly. Ian's expressions got bloody annoying after awhile.
Shors is an excellent descriptive writer, and he evokes the senses as he describes each of these different countries. He also writes sensitively about profound grief, especially from a man's perspective (feeling like he took his wife for granted and spent too much time at the office). I enjoyed reading about the interactions Ian and Mattie have with the locals, such as a Japanese teacher and Peace Corps workers in Nepal. The story of Rupee (the Indian orphan) seemed a bit unresolved--why was the orphanage director not responding to Ian's e-mails?
The ending was patently predictable, so don't read this book if you like to be surprised at the end.
In conclusion, The Wishing Trees was not the best of Shors' books, but I'm glad I read it. It brought back wonderful memories of my own travel and it gave me a renewed appreciation for my own loved ones.