Bored with life in 1980s Palo Alto, California, a teenage Ariel Gore (founder of the alternative parenting magazine Hip Mama) decides to run away. Carrying only a change of clothes, a little money, an I Ching guide book and a one-way ticket to Hong Kong, Gore departs on an adventure that doesn’t quite end up the way she imagines.
She chronicles her travels through Asia and Europe in the candid memoir Atlas of the Human Heart.
Gore’s parents, two laid-back hippies left over from the 1960s, believe their daughter has been accepted as a foreign exchange student at the Beijing Language Institute. In reality, neither Gore nor her parents truly knew what lay ahead.
Atlas doesn’t tell a tale of fancy hotels, sightseeing or exotic food. Gore lives by the seat of her pants, not always knowing if she’ll have a place to stay or a meal to eat. She is unflinchingly honest in the re-telling of her experiences with smuggling, panhandling, squatting and drug use. She seems to do these things not out of rebellion, but out of passiveness and not knowing quite how to handle situations. It’s maddening for the reader at times, but I kept reminding myself that Gore was just a kid, and screwing up is a part of growing up.
During her travels, she meets a cast of characters. Vincent is an acupuncturist who left his African homeland to study Chinese medicine. Nikki is a fellow American Gore meets in Amsterdam and with whom she later travels to London where they live as squatters in a rundown home. And then there is her boyfriend Lance, with whom she shares a bed – and later, a child.
Gore’s memoir ends just as her adult life is beginning. She’s on the verge of turning twenty and has just given birth to her daughter, Maia, in Italy. She returns to the United States after several years of adventure and wonders what awaits her back home. Just as she’s about to make her way back to the States, she reads the I Ching to find her fortune. It states:
Return (The Turning Point). It furthers one to have somewhere to go. After a time of decay comes the turning point. The powerful light that has been banished returns. The idea of return is based on the course of nature. The movement is cyclic and the course completes itself.
Atlas of the Human Heart is the anti-Eat, Pray, Love. Gore is no privileged yuppie, traveling on a hefty book advance and contemplating her navel. She is honest in her teen-age confusion, restlessness and angst (and includes some pretty pretentious teenage poetry). Yet, she never comes across as a whiny brat. Things are what they are. The memoir flows like a novel. It’s a descriptive page turner that constantly made me wonder what would happen next.
Gore’s evocative and lyrical writing style, I felt I was right in the thick of things. Whether you’re a seasoned traveler or a member of the “staycation” club, Atlas of the Human Heart is a worthy literary journey.