Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Fiction Review: Travel Writing

As soon as I heard about Travel Writing, a first novel by writer Peter Ferry, I was intrigued. I like any novel where the main character is a writer, and in this one, he is a travel writer, something I have dabbled in and aspire to. This unique novel combines elements of mystery and love story, with some travel essays thrown in and a thought provoking overlay on the thin line between fiction and memoir. In short, it defies easy characterization.

The narrator is Pete Ferry, a high school English teacher and part-time travel writer whose life sounds remarkably similar to the author’s bio on the back of the book (including sharing the same name), so right away you’re wondering how much of this novel is autobiographical. One night Pete witnesses a traffic accident and sees the beautiful woman driver die. He becomes obsessed with what he witnessed and whether he could have prevented it, and he begins to conduct his own investigation into the woman and the accident.

Meanwhile, he’s telling his students a story about the woman and the accident and insisting that he’s making it all up. Throughout the book, the reader is left to wonder how much of this story within a story is truth and how much is fiction. Here, Pete talks about his life as a teacher and a writer:

I would go to parties and say I was an editor, and people, especially women – and that was important to me back then – would say, “Oh, really?” and raise their eyebrows and look at me a little more carefully. I remember the first party I went to after I became a teacher, someone asked me what I did for a living, and I said, “Well, I teach high school.” He looked over my shoulder, nodded his head, said, “I went to high school,” and walked away.

Once I repeated this anecdote around a big table full of Mexican food in the garden at a place called La Choza in Chicago, and Becky Mueller, another teacher at the school, said that I was a “storyteller.” I liked that. I was looking for something to be other than “just” a teacher, and “storyteller” felt about right. I am a teacher and a storyteller in that order. I have made my living and my real contribution to my community as a teacher, and I have been very lucky to have found that calling, but all through the years I have entertained myself and occasionally other people by telling stories.

Ferry creates a wonderful sense of place throughout the novel. Pete lives in Chicago, and the novel contains so many detailed references to the restaurants, bars, parks, and other features of the city that I wished I knew Chicago better so I could fully appreciate every allusion. In addition, the main story of the novel is accented with a series of travel essays written by Pete highlighting Mexico, Thailand, and, my personal favorite, a wilderness canoe trip in Ontario. The travel essays are not separate from the main story but describe Pete’s trips during the timeframe covered in the novel.

Travel Writing is the perfect title for this novel because it takes the reader on a journey, through the mystery of the accident, through the places Pete visits, and even through Pete’s own emotional growth. It’s suspenseful and engaging; the characters feel very real. I was kept guessing right until the end about exactly what caused the accident and what Pete would do about it, and I’m still wondering exactly how much of the story was fact and how much was fiction. It’s a fascinating and enjoyable journey.

294 pages, Mariner Books


  1. Oh - this sounds just wonderful! I, too, have thought of dabbling in travel writing (or writing about my dogs....I haven't quite decided, but there is no rush). And of course I love a good mystery. I will definitely have to check this book out.

  2. This sounds good! I want to be a travel writer too!

  3. This goes on my TBR list! Nice review.