Pam Houstons newest book, Contents May Have Shifted, is billed as a novel but reads more like an autobiographical travelogue. The hero is named Pam, which is just another aspect that blurs the fiction/fact feel of the book. It is a fascinating trip taking readers all around the world, from California to Colorado to South Asia, Africa and beyond.
Houstons writing is poetic and descriptive, bringing readers along for a ride to Tibetan temples, dog sledding in Alaska and spa indulgences with friends. Each place Pam visits is captured by her nuanced observations. She also has an uncanny ability to connect with the locals on her travels and is able to elicit unique stories from them, which she shares with readers.
This story doesnt follow the typical linear timeline of a straight narrative but instead jumps back and forth and up, down and around with her relationships, which include friends, fellow travelers and lovers. Because of this movement, it can take readers a while to keep the different players in order and understand how they relate in importance to Pam.
Houston doesnt write in a standard chapter structure but her style is more than pages. The parts seem as video-sound bytes, with the only orientating information on the heading being the location of the action. There are 132 segments but interestingly, the portions that occur on plane flights arent included in the numbers. Also, the flying sections are both scary and funny. One dramatic flight in particular gives rise to the title of the book. The saving grace for these tense episodes is the knowledge that she must survive in order to write the book.
Pams story is all about love in its many forms. Love of place, friends, cultures, adventures and the romantic love of a partner. Pam has quite a few problems in the latter area. Ethan, the first boyfriend mentioned in her travels, is emotionally adolescent and a narcissistic Romeo with girlfriends everywhere. Later, she connects with Rick, a highly educated craftsman who creates custom-wood floors.
Unfortunately, he comes with extra baggage, a flaky ex-wife who is extremely high maintenance. Rick also has an 8-year-old daughter who places Pam in the unexpected role of stepmother.
Houston writes with a nice hint of self-deprecation and gentle humor while managing to touch on several important issues besides adventure and travel. Some matters, such as suicide and child abuse, seem to be drawn from personal experience.
It is relationships, however, that are the prime consideration for Houston and company. As the book evolves, she realizes that sometimes the larger adventure can be staying still and forging a life with loved ones in one place. But as traveling to foreign lands, there are likely to be bumps in the road. Readers will root for Houston and hope that the destination will be worthy of her journey.
Contents May Have Shifted is Houstons entertaining fifth book. Her collection of short stories, Cowboys Are My Weakness, won the Western States Book Award in 1993. She is currently the is director of Creative Writing at the University of California-Davis.
Reach freelance reviewer Leslie Doran at firstname.lastname@example.org.