Book review: The Grand Tour by Olivia Wearne

(cover image courtesy Harper Collins Australia)

No one likes to think they are going to get to near the end of their lives and be buried under a mountain of simmering regret.

What we all want is to march into the latter decades of our life, head held high, heart full and a list of flawless accomplishments trailing in our considerable wake but as Olivia Wearne beautifully makes clear in The Grand Tour, life rarely accommodates such grandiosely optimistic visions.

Rather, as her protagonists discover to their chagrin, or more likely rediscover, since early sixty-somethings Ruby and Angela, the grand tourers of the title who take their Winnebago to Adelaide and back and then around Ballarat, Victoria while their adjoining units are refurbished, are hardly lacking in self awareness, you get beyond middle age to find that there is a litany of failures and mistakes where all those existential trophies should be.

So, what to do about that?

Well, you can concentrate on the fact that for all the great failures of your life, there are also things for which to be grateful such as the recently-realised friendship Ruby and Angela have found in the last couple of years, the result of one of them finally deciding nodding as they took out their bins wasn’t enough and that maybe there was a connection to be had where previously none existed.

It’s a brave act but it pays off and Ruby, who sees herself as homely and nowhere as flash as her more attractive and garrulous friend, and Angela find that sometimes good things do indeed come to those who wait.

“Before they climbed into the Winnebago, Angela insisted Ruby pose with her in front of the motor home. She wanted Bernard to see what fun they were having. ‘Like one of those drives where you have lots of adventures along the way.’

‘A road trip.’ Ruby bobbed to let Angela hook an arm around her shoulders. ‘For someone who can’t stand somebody, you spend a lot of time worrying what he thinks.’

‘Precisely. Now do a big smile and make it look like we’re having the time of lives.'” (P. 28)

That doesn’t mean, though that suddenly everything is perfect.

Far from it, in fact, with Ruby estranged from her daughter and having to cope with a granddaughter so determined that she stows away on their Winnebago one day and inadvertently turns them into kidnappers, and Angela wholly unsure how to bridge the familial chasm that exists between her and her brother Bernard, a one time local news reader celebrity who finds himself wondering what the hell happened to his once charmed existence.

His wife Mia is off with a younger man, his work offers are problematic including voicing the audio book version of Patrick White’s Australian classic Voss which Bernard finds insufferably boring and which may just land him in a heap of legal trouble, and he might have brought a world of hurt down upon himself by driving while intoxicated after sealing a boozy deal to promote a local winery.

He should have the world at his feet but instead it seems to have inverted itself and fallen straight down onto him, crushing him to the point where climbing back out seems to be one challenge too many.

(image courtesy Harper Collins Australia)

It might all sound a bit grim but Wearne delivers this story of life not quite living up to expectations with a pleasing helping of vibrantly comedic wit and whimsy, delivered by Ruby and Angela whose friendship is the cornerstone and heart of the book’s engaging, if occasionally inert, narrative.

Key to exploring some pretty big issues with a cheeky glint in the eye is the fact that Ruby and Angela are very easy to like; they are likably and relatably flawed, possessed of a warm and funny friendship and zingy dialogue that would make for a fine comedic movie or TV series should the book ever make it to that point, and self-aware enough to know they could’ve done a whole lot better at life but also wise enough to realise that things are never quite that simple and best intentions do not always yield optimal results.

As they drive hither and yon, Wearne gradually weaves the seemingly separate stories of Ruby and Angela, Bernard, Mia and her lover Lucas (and Mia’s of hilariously wonderful older gay men) and Ruby’s daughter and granddaughter, Carol and Izzy respectively, into a mostly satisfying story that might be all laughs and growing old disgracefully on the surface but which is thoughtful and insightful about the ageing human condition just below the surface.

The Grand Tour happily admits to the fact that life is rarely as good or successful as we want it to be, but in the midst of all this honesty, told with ribald good humour and a mischievous willingness to challenge the accepted odds, there’s a great deal of hopefulness and a sense that mistakes and their consequences aside, there might be some hope for restoration and renewal.

“Izzy woke to the sound of voices. It took her a minute to get her bearings, by which time Ruby had her key in the lock. The door opened and Izzy rose like a counterweight from the couch. The women stood dumbstruck in the doorway.

‘Where’s your mum?’ Ruby said, presuming this was some sort of ambush.

‘I don’t know.’

‘Did she just leave you?’

‘No. I left her.'” (PP. 181-182)

In true Australian fashion where the heart might be worn on the sleeve but it’s still determined to kick its heels up, The Grand Tour doesn’t go all soft and mushy in its pursuit of some sort of happy ending.

Its sage and knowing enough amidst all the silliness and absurdist hijinks to know that happy-ever-afters, should they ever be available, are not quite as straightforward as you might think nor are they are conveniently timed as we might like.

In fact, we often end up going through all manner of hurt and pain and messy, problematic situations on our way to getting somewhere good, and that is just the way life is whether we like it or not.

It’s that ability to be honest about life and yet be determined to defy the odds anyway that makes The Grand Tour such a winningly enjoyable read; it stares life right in the eyes, reads it its list of long and lamentable sins and dares it to make things worse.

Naturally, things do get worse because if capricious like that, but then they have a funny way of getting better, or better enough anyway, proof that while life may not march to our preferred beat of the drum, it marches along anyway and you may just be surprised where it takes you.

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