What is this about?: It’s a funny, heartfelt tale about finding yourself and your plus-one in the most unexpected place. Truth is, Zoe and Martin are separate for most of this book, but that’s because they each have their own baggage and their own issues to deal with before they can be together. And the authors aren’t rushing to the ending when the journey there is far more important.
What else is this about?: You know what, it’s about learning to move forward, past the hurt and the anger that life throws at you.
Blurb: Zoe, a sometime artist, is from California. Martin, an engineer, is from Yorkshire. Both have ended up in picturesque Cluny, in central France. Both are struggling to come to terms with their recent past—for Zoe, the death of her husband; for Martin, a messy divorce. Looking to make a new start, each sets out alone to walk two thousand kilometres from Cluny to Santiago, in northwestern Spain, in the footsteps of pilgrims who have walked the Camino—the Way—for centuries.
The Camino changes you, it’s said. It’s a chance to find a new version of yourself. But can these two very different people find each other?
In this smart, funny and romantic journey, Martin’s and Zoe’s stories are told in alternating chapters by husband-and-wife team Graeme Simsion and Anne Buist. Two Steps Forward is a novel about renewal—physical, psychological and spiritual. It’s about the challenge of walking a long distance and of working out where you are going. And it’s about what you decide to keep, what you choose to leave behind and what you rediscover.
What is the Camino de Santiago or the The Way, I hear you ask? It’s a walk, network of pilgrimage routes to Spain. It starts from different spots in Europe, and in the case of Two Steps Forward, France.
One of the unexpected things about this book is that I forgot that Anne Buist and Graeme Simsion were writing alternating chapters. Those links there will give you an idea of who different they are as authors, and yet this book is brilliantly seamless, and cohesive, and goddamn, why haven’t they done this before?
Zoe’s husband died three weeks before she finds herself at the door of an old friend in France. She’s broken inside, but it’s more than just the grief of her husband’s loss that’s affecting her. Zoe’s arc in this book is about facing the truths about herself, about her marriage and her past. She’s vulnerable, and closing herself off to everything and everyone because she’s just not ready for anything more.
That’s the thing about Zoe’s story and Martin’s too — you’ll know it, you’ll relate to them easily and find yourself nodding along the way.
I can’t imagine walking tens of kilometres on my own never mind thousands, but what you learn quickly – as Zoe did – is that you will always meet travellers on the Way, that it will provide a place to stay or a place to pitch a tent.
It’s a little like placing your faith in the universe in some respects, and on the Way at least, the universe doesn’t let you down.
But the universe can’t quite protect Zoe from facing some harsh truths about her marriage, her past and in truth about herself in all of the above. It’s a sad, confronting acknowledgement for her and for anyone, which in part keeps her and Martin separate and at odds for some of the book.
I think that’s the beauty of this book though – you may want Martin and Zoe to find each other, but you won’t be able to deny that Zoe had to find herself first. Or that Martin did too in an entirely different way.
Martin is drifting, trying to find his way after the breakdown of his marriage and its bitter aftermath. He is in contact with Sarah, his daughter and their conversations via text and Skype provide an inkling of what he’s been through. He’s on the Way with a cart of his own design, testing it, and himself, out on the terrain. He is caught up in the anger at his ex, and while he may be the very picture of an English gentleman, he is hurting. It shows in the way he talks to his daughter, especially, because with Sarah comes thoughts of his ex and the slow acknowledgement that he has to make peace with Julia’s choices in order to move forward – his daughter may need him to do so, but he needs to do so for himself too.
Zoe and Martin
Separately, their stories are quiet, character-driven explorations of different types of grief, and the authors never rush anything, never give in to pushing these two characters together quicker than they should. Buist and Simsion will play with your heart, in a series of miscommunciations that feel less like tropes and more like the universe telling these two not to rush, that they’re not quite ready for each other yet. And you won’t mind it at all. It’s Martin that breaks through the walls Zoe’s created around her heart if only because her grief comes from a deep loss.
Their first meeting is hilarious, with the alternating chapters offering honesty that might have not been present had these two authors decided to write this book differently. From there, and on their walk, they meet a diverse cast of men and women, each doing their walk for their own reasons. There’s a sense of camaraderie amongst these individuals, one you can’t help thinking would be fun to find yourself in the middle of in this, the longest walk you’ll ever take.
Buist and Simsion as I’ve mentioned are accomplished authors in their own right, and together they bring the Way to life, in their descriptions of the routes themselves, the people, be they fellow walkers or the French inhabitants they meet along the way – those who respect what they’re doing, and those who will overcharge them for everything.
I was doing okay with this book, enjoying the thoughtful exploration of both these characters, right up until the last chapters when I started tearing up. Why? Still not sure. Is it because the Way revealed a different part to all these characters? Or that Zoe was happy and had found a measure of peace she hadn’t before? Or that Martin found that no matter what happened before in his life, it didn’t mean he had to do everything alone?
I was contemplating postponing writing this review until I figured it out, but then I thought, sometimes, you just have to feel – to go with what the Way or a book like this one makes you feel. This one made me feel uplifted. I hope it does the same for you too.