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  • Written by Laura Fraser
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On Sale: June 01, 2010
Pages: | ISBN: 978-0-307-45091-3
Published by : Crown Crown/Archetype
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

What's a wise, witty travel writer to do when she reaches forty and is still single? Wander the globe searching for romance and adventure, of course.

On a trip to Oaxaca, Mexico, to celebrate her fortieth birthday, Laura Fraser confronts the unique trajectory of her life. Divorced and childless in her thirties, she found solace in the wanderlust that had always directed her heart—and found love and comfort in the arms of a dashing Frenchman. Their Italian affair brought her back to herself—but now she wonders if her passion for travel (and for short-lived romantic rendezvous) has deprived her of what she secretly wants most from life: a husband, a family, a home.

When her Parisian lover meets her in Oaxaca and gives her news that he’s found someone new, Laura is stunned and hurt. Now, it seems, she has nothing but her own independence for company—and, at forty, a lot more wrinkles on her face and fewer years of fertility. How is Laura going to reconcile what seem to be two opposite desires: for adventure, travel, great food, and new experiences, but also a place to call home—and a loving pair of arms to greet her there?

And so, she globe hops. What else is a travel writer to do? From Argentina to Peru, Naples to Paris, she basks in the glow of new cultures and local delicacies, always on the lookout for the “one” who might become a lifelong companion. But when a terrible incident occurs while she’s on assignment in the South Pacific, Laura suddenly finds herself more aware of her vulnerability and becomes afraid of traveling. It seems as if she might lose the very thing that has given her so much pleasure in her life, not to mention the career she has built for herself as a world traveler and chronicler of far-flung places.

Finding herself again will be both more difficult and more natural than she imagined. Ultimately, Laura realizes the most important journey she must take is an internal one. And the tale of how she reaches that place will captivate every woman who has ever yearned for a different life.


From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpt

Chapter One
OAXACA, MEXICO
2001

The winter sun warms the cobblestones that pave the Plaza de Armas in Oaxaca, Mexico. Heavy colonial archways shade the café tables where travelers and people watchers and expatriates come to just sit. They sip their coffees and take in the scene: small boys hawking huge bunches of colorful balloons, musicians in worn suits and perfectly ironed shirts stopping off for a shoe shine, ancient-faced Indians carrying baskets of greens on their heads. Beyond the zócalo, the Sierra Madre mountain range rings the town. There is no hurry here.

The atmosphere is relaxed, but inside I’m buzzing like one of the bees at the fruit vendor’s cart. I glance around the plaza, eyes barely resting on the balconies, the bandstand, the laurel trees, the women with dark braids and bright embroidered tops perched on the edge of the fountain. I check my watch, and it isn’t even time yet.

I’ve come to Oaxaca to mark my fortieth birthday, the passing of the decade during which I probably should have gotten married (again) and had children but did not. It didn’t work out that way. But I am going to celebrate anyway, celebrate the fact that I have the freedom to run off and be in Mexico for my birthday; celebrate with someone—a friend? lover?—for whom all of life is a celebration if you just fi nd the right spot in the sun to sit and take it all in.

I close my eyes to calm myself and sense the faint whiffs of chocolate, coffee, and chiles that perfume the thin air. When I open my eyes, I catch sight of him across the plaza: his soft denim jacket, thick silver bracelet, and chestnut curls that somehow,
still, are not gray. I jump up and wave wildly, and he sees me—everyone sees me—and he drops his old leather suitcase and opens his arms wide.

In a moment, I am pressing my face against his, breathing in his familiar smell of cigars and sea, amazed, as always, to see him again. I met this man, the Professor, by chance over breakfast in a pensione on an Italian island four years ago, right after my husband left me. Over the course of those years, meeting every so often in a different city or island, he helped mend my heart. He has his life and I have mine, but every time we’re together, the scenery seems brighter and the flavors more intense.

Professore,” I say, breaking our embrace to search his face.

“Laura,” he says, with the soft rolling Italian pronunciation, which could also be Spanish. I like my name, and maybe myself, better in a Latin country. It’s softer.

The Professor sits at the café, orders coffee, and moves his chair close, positioning his face in the sun. He squeezes my hand.

Bel posto,” he says. Beautiful place.

Incantado,” I say, not sure, as often happens, if I am speaking Italian or Spanish. Enchanted.

La bella vita continua,” he says.

He tells me that I look as good as ever, and I say he looks even better, something has changed. He seems energetic and expansive for his normally cool Parisian aesthetics professor self, less pale. He is brimming with a secret joy.

By the time we walk several blocks back to our hotel, opening the door onto a promiscuous jungle of a garden, he has spilled the whole story. He finally split up with the wife who didn’t love him, who had been in love with someone else for years. And he’s found an exciting new relationship.

We sit at a colorful little tile table on the patio outside our room, and he tells me everything. I’ve known there have been other women between our rendezvous, and there have been other men for me, too. But I’m not sure I want to hear all this. I don’t
care to know, for instance, that she is Eastern European and a professor herself and teaches comparative literature. Even less that she probably spends more on her lingerie than her clothes. While he tells his story I stare at a banana tree, counting the leaves from the bottom, struggling to be able to say, by the time I reach the clear sky above, that I am happy for him instead of sorry for myself. It’s not as if I’d ever imagined that I would end up in Paris with the Professor. Well, not very often. I did start taking French.

“I’m happy for you,” I say finally, and I’m glad, at least, to see that adds to his joy. I’m trying not to think about how ironic it is that it is the Professor—the rogue, the adventurer, the Don Juan—who is happy to be settling down, while I, the one who has
wanted a steady partner, a companion, a house and family, am sharing a hotel room with yet another man who likes me a lot and is not in love with me. If he says we can always be friends, I will lose it completely.

I turn the key to our whitewashed room, and he flops down on the carved wooden bed. I lie next to him, fi ghting tears, and he caresses my cheek. Then he strokes the small of my back.

I roll away and sit up. “Professor,” I finally say, “it’s too hard for me to be friends who tell each other everything about their love lives and still be lovers.”

“Not for me,” he says, sexy as ever.

I push his hand away and sigh. “Let’s go eat.”

I chose Oaxaca for my birthday and convinced the Professor to join me (before this new romance of his) because I happened across a book by Italo Calvino, Under the Jaguar Sun, in which each essay is devoted to one of the senses. Of all the cities in the
world where Calvino had dined—and he was Italian, mind you—for him Oaxaca embodied the ultimate fulfi llment of the sense of taste. Oaxacan cuisine, he wrote, mixes a cornucopia of native vegetables with spices and recipes brought over by the Spanish. Over the centuries, those cuisines were mingled, enhanced, and perfected by cloistered nuns (for whom cooking was one of the few earthly indulgences). Calvino called Oaxacan food “an elaborate and bold cuisine” with fl avor notes that vibrate
against one another in harmonies and dissonances to “a point of no return, an absolute possession exercised on the receptivity of all the senses.”

Ah, yes. For now, in Oaxaca, with the Professor, the food will have to do all the stirring of the senses.

And so we eat. We venture to a modest place near the hotel where a stout woman does wonders in the tiny kitchen. We try dishes that are familiar by name but taste unlike any Mexican food I’ve ever eaten. The guacamole is fresher, the tortillas sweeter and crisper. The dark sauce on the enchiladas and chiles rellenos seem
concocted from an ancient, mysterious alchemy. For the French Professor, who has never set foot in this country before and has tried Mexican food only secondhand in San Francisco when he visited me there, every taste is new.

For the next few days, we explore Oaxaca’s cuisine, trying moles in different colors each day—from Amarillo, with tomatillos and chiles, to a black, chocolaty mole negro. Each sauce requires days to prepare, and each bite is a layered, earthy, mouth-warming experience. The Professor sighs, watching me in anticipation of the pleasure of my bite, and then I sigh with him, adding the layers and spices of our history and passion to each complicated mouthful.

Between meals, we visit Monte Alban, the Zapotec ruins, climbing to the top of the pyramids to take in the wide sky and view of the town below. You can see why Hernán Cortés, who was offered anywhere in Mexico for himself after his conquest, chose the Oaxaca Valley. Then we walk all the way back to town to find Aztec soup and chicken tamales wrapped in banana leaves. We wander around the neat cobblestone streets another day, peeking into brightly painted churches, admiring cactus gardens, browsing in art galleries—and then we order Anaheim and poblano chiles sautéed with fresh cheese, onions, and crème fraiche. We tour Oaxaca’s huge food market, pass stalls with hanging pigs, fresh chocolate, stacks of cactus, and basketfuls of corn, tomatoes, onions, exotic greens, and roasted grasshoppers. Tidy piles of chiles stand as tall as I. We discover the chocolate factory and drink creamy hot chocolate, looking into each other’s eyes, bittersweet.

Qué rico,” I say to the server as I fi nish my chocolate. How delicious.

“How do you know Spanish?” the Professor asks.

I explain that my mother brought my three older sisters and me to live in Mexico for a summer when I was ten years old. We spent that time in San Miguel de Allende, a colonial town not unlike Oaxaca, at an age when I was unafraid to roam around and try to talk to everyone. It was when I got my first taste of the wide world and felt a hunger for its endless sights and fl avors. It was also when I first understood that being able to speak another language, even the few phrases one can manage at ten, isn’t just a matter of translating familiar words; it’s a way of expanding your internal territory and venturing outside the borders of your culture and family. The fresh new sentences change the very nature of your thoughts, your usual reactions, and your sense of who you are. I learned, that summer, that I couldn’t speak a little Spanish without becoming a little Mexican. That exciting summer in San Miguel de Allende—discovering the pleasures of discovery—was when I first became a traveler.

“Intelligent mother,” says the Professor, pushing back from the table, content.

Eventually it is our last evening, and we have finished dinner down to the mescal, satiated with the place, cheeks warmed, and cheerful, for the moment, with our transition to friends.

“Happy birthday,” says the Professor, and he pulls out a necklace he bought from an Indian vendor, a lovely string of turquoise and amber. I try to remember if any man besides my father has ever bought me a piece of jewelry. Aside from my first boyfriend
in college, who gave me an opal pendant as a parting gift, I can’t recall any. I was outraged once when my friend Giovanna told me her husband had never bought her any jewelry during their entire marriage, with all the toys he bought for himself, and maybe I was so mad because mine didn’t, either. So this gift, at forty, is a delightful surprise.

The Professor clasps it, hands warm, on my neck. “What do you wish for?”

So many things. I wish we could stay in Oaxaca and be the lovers we used to be. I wish I could still fall in love or even believe I could. I wish for great food, adventure, and soul-scorching sex.

Maybe a child, still. I wish for it all.

“Romance and adventure,” I say. I do not say what else I wish for, maybe what I wish for most, because it seems contrary to everything else, which is to be with one man or in one place, to have something settled in a life where nothing is settled.

“Do you think you can have both?” asks the Professor. “Who is the man who will let you roam around the world, meeting your old lovers?”

I shrug. “Maybe he’ll travel with me.”

“Good luck,” says the Professor, and he is sincere.

I twirl my glass between my fingers, sniff the smoky mescal, and wonder, as I always wonder, whether we will see each other again. I ask the Professor if he thinks we might travel together again.

“You never know,” he says. He reaches over and strokes my hand.

La vita è bella e lunga,” he says. Life is beautiful and long. We clink glasses.

After dinner, we go back to the hotel and snuggle together like contented old friends.

Buenas noches,” I tell him, and he is already snoozing.

I can’t sleep. The moon is peeking through the wooden window frame, and I wonder about my wishes for romance and adventure. This man I have loved, off and on, is leaving tomorrow, and, as usual, I don’t know when or whether I’ll see him again.

The men in my life are always like the countries I visit: I fall in love briefl y and then move on. I visit, regard the wonders, delve into the history, taste the cooking, peer into dark corners, feel a few moments of excitement and maybe ecstasy and bliss, and
then, though I am often sad to leave—or stung that no one insists that I stay—I am on my way.

Here on a sultry night in a foreign country, with a man sleeping next to me, casually throwing his skinny leg over my soft one, I realize I don’t have someone whom I can call home. I wonder if it’s possible to have everything I wished for on my fortieth birthday: adventure and romance, wanderlust and just plain lust.

I turn in the bed. Actually, it isn’t exactly romance and lust that I wish for. Finding a fascinating and attractive man on the road, going from being perfect strangers to holding hands, sharing stories and bites of dessert, gazing into each other’s eyes over
dinner, and then stopping for a moment to stare at each other again in bed—that’s romance, that’s lust. That’s exciting and wonderful, but it’s all too brief, like a vacation. Of course, you can travel the world and find romance. What’s more elusive is real companionship, someone who’s always making the same dent on his side of the bed, who knows how you like your coffee in the morning. It’s much harder to find comfort and stability, to be held, to be secure in the knowledge that someone is taking care of
you and even— old-fashioned as it sounds—protecting you.

You can’t grow old with someone if you’re always off searching for new experiences. And I’m not getting any younger.

I roll over again, facing the Professor, who echoes my disturbance with a few deep, skidding snores. I’m restless and agitated.

I face the Professor and then turn toward the wall; I don’t feel comfortable anywhere. My desires—to be free and to belong, to be independent and to be inextricably loved, to be in motion and to be still—pull me back and forth. The Professor sleeps soundly
while I wrestle with the two sides of myself until I am worn out and the moonlight dims, replaced by the cool light of dawn.


From the Hardcover edition.
Laura Fraser|Author Q&A

About Laura Fraser

Laura Fraser - All Over the Map

Photo © Cristina Taccone

Laura Fraser has written for Salon.com, Vogue, Glamour, Mother Jones, Self, The San Francisco Examiner, Gourmet, and Health, among other publications. She has taught magazine writing at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley. She lives in San Francisco.

Author Q&A

"NO COCKTAILS ON THE BEACH":
A Q&A between Laura Fraser, author of ALL OVER THE MAP
and Mary Roach, author of STIFF and SPOOK

 
MR: I loved your new book, Laura. I found it to be really wise. There were some lines that really stayed with me, like, “Whatever happens, in spring there will always be rhubarb.” I also loved, “It’s not that the grass is greener, it’s that you can never be on both sides of the lawn.” Amen.

LF: Thanks, Mary. I’m wiser, I hope, than when we first met in our twenties!

MR: With this book, there’s something about the fact that you’re writing it in “middle age”--there’s a wisdom to it, and your perspectives on yourself, relationships and marriage had a lot of depth. An Italian Affair was a wonderful, sweeping romance, but this one has more depth and lessons for so many people who are in similar situations.

LF: I guess there are a few advantages to being middle-aged. You’re not as much of an idiot.

MR: I was wondering why there was such a big gap in time between An Italian Affair and this book? I mean, I know, book ideas are not easy to come up with, particularly when you’re writing from your own life—and there’s that sense that you have do always be doing something book-worthy.

LF: That’s right. An Italian Affair was successful enough that it was hard to come up with an idea that people in the book world thought would be as successful. I went to see a mentor, William Zinsser, who wrote On Writing Well, who’s an old-school journalist, with an office in New York City that’s like an oasis of craft where agents and publishers dare not enter. When I told him I felt like I couldn’t write anything because I didn’t think anything would be as successful as my last book, he said that was the most ridiculous thing he’d ever heard. He told me to just get back to writing about what moves me most.

MR: Good advice.

LF: Absolutely. And the funny thing about this book is that it ended up being quite different from what I set out to write, and I like it better. Everything happens in the process of writing. You can’t plan it all out. The book is a little hodge-podge—“All Over the Map” is kind of the theme as well.

MR: You’re giving your critics a big, fat target. Here’s your headline! Run with it! (Both laugh). But life is all over the map, and maybe because you travel so much, you’re skilled at finding the angle in covering the things you report that fit a larger narrative—you did a really good job of thematically weaving in issues about women and the struggles they have all over the world and the ways they find of dealing with what society expects of them. The book is really not all over the map at all.

LF: I in no way wanted to compare the issues I’m dealing with to those of the women I interviewed—prostitutes in Naples, genocide survivors in Rwanda.

MR: I feel your pain, honey. Just try being me! You can’t believe some of the dates I’ve had on Match.com! You think your Saturday night is rough! (Laughs) No, I don’t think you in any way belittled their experiences, because the stories of those women are very compassionately told.

LF: Good. I just wanted to get across that we’re at a funny time in history when women all over the world are in a double bind about what’s expected of them.

MR: So, did you think about writing this book in the second person like An Italian Affair? I remember you went back and forth when you wrote that, deciding between first person or second.

LF: Or the royal “we.” With this book, it’s part of that sense of being older and wiser--I felt I could land on the first person. I’ve got something to say, I have more confidence about my voice.  With An Italian Affair, the second person worked, partly because it gave it a dreamy quality, like a fable. But this is a different book.

MR: This is such an honest book, I don’t think the “you” would work. You can say about yourself, “You’re the most impulsive person, always blurting things out,” but the reader might take offense at the “you.”

LF: I’m not sure men who read An Italian Affair appreciated the “you,” either. “You’re having an affair with a sexy French professor.” Wait! No I’m not! It just doesn’t work for everyone.

MR: My publisher did an audio book for my last book, Bonk, and they found a male reader. I asked, “What about that chapter where I have sex with Ed in the ultrasound lab?” That’s going to be a little problem, since it’s in the first person. They hired a woman.

LF: That’s hilarious. Since An Italian Affair was about my thirties, and All Over the Map is about my forties, that means there’s less sex in it, sadly. But it’s harder to write about sex in the first person, so it’s just as well.

MR: One of the things I like about this book, in an age where there’s a blurry line between fact and fiction in a lot of memoirs, is that this one is absolutely true. You didn’t exaggerate anything, or change things around to make them fit. It’s a really real story about coming to grips with who you are, and what you thought you’d be.

LF: I guess the journalist in me believes that memoirs should be true. I mean, dialogue is never word for word, and memory is always faulty—memoir is about the truth to the best of your ability to remember it-- but I don’t believe in embellishing anything. If you want to do that, just call it “fiction.”

MR: I was especially touched by your portrait of your mom, and just a generation back, how hard it was for her to balance an adventurous spirit with family life and pretty rigid social expectations of women. I liked your exploration of whether women can have it all. When you talked to women at your reunion who seemed to have great jobs and family lives, you scratched the surface and saw a lot of stress, and they envied your life. Like you said, it’s not that the grass is always greener, it’s that you can’t be on both sides of the lawn.

LF: The whole dating thing in your forties is brutal. Thank God you vetted a lot of my Internet dating matches over the years, or I would’ve gotten into bigger trouble. Or maybe I would’ve had more to write about. But you had an unerring sense with the “delete” button.

MR: Yeah, I remember the guy who took you to Muslim Malaysia where Americans weren’t very welcome, in the middle of monsoon season.

LF: No cocktails on the beach.

MR: You didn’t run him by me!

LF: My mistake. Older and wiser.

MR: Let’s go have a cocktail.
 
 
 
 


From the Hardcover edition.

Praise

Praise

“Makes you want to pack your bags, explore the world, mend your broken heart, and totally reclaim your life.”
Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love
 
"Even as her journey turns into an emotional roller-coaster, Fraser’s intimate and inspiring tale delivers a life-expanding embrace of the planet’s everyday pleasures and unpredictabilities."
—National Geographic Traveler


Praise for the New York Times bestselling AN ITALIAN AFFAIR
 
“Sweet, smart. We are smitten from the start.”
—O: The Oprah Magazine
 
“Luscious. . . . Fraser is such a charmer, so smart, honest, observant, incisive and funny, that within a few pages the reader is entirely hers.”
The Washington Post
 
“A beach book for your brain. . . . A sexy, intellectual read.”
Redbook
 
“Both a grand travelogue and a thoughtful look at reclaiming independence.”
Conde Nast Traveler
 
“A deliciously romantic story, made even more captivating by the idea that someone actually experienced it.”
The Times (London)
Discussion Questions

Discussion Guides

1. Fraser learns something about herself from her wilderness trip, from tango, from meditating, and from the life coach. What does she learn in each case, and which lesson is the most important? What similar learning experiences have you had?

2. Fraser writes, “I was more intent on competing with the men I found interesting than eventually marrying one of them, which may have been an unfortunate ripple effect of seventies-era feminism, or just bad timing.” What do you think? How much of a role has history played in shaping Fraser’s relationships (and the relationships of women of her generation)? How would things have been different if she had been born twenty-five years earlier?

3. Martha Borst, the corporate guru, urges her clients to embrace a philosophy of “accountability”—taking responsibility for everything that happens to you. Do you agree with this philosophy? How does it help Fraser deal with her rape?

4. Fraser was happy in San Miguel de Allende when she visited it as a child. Why is it important for her to return to a place where she was happy as a child? What part of herself is she reconnecting with?

5. One of the issues Fraser deals with in the book is her impulsiveness. Although the decision to make an offer on the house is not premeditated, how is it different from other impulsive decisions Fraser has made in the past? 

6. What does owning her own house mean to Fraser? Why is it important emotionally? What enables her finally to make the move? Can you create a home for yourself in another country? What does the idea of “home” mean to you?

7. Fraser includes many descriptions of food and meals in the book. She reveals herself to be someone who has had a troubled relationship with food in the past, including bulimia. What do you think about her current relationship with food? Is it healthy?

8. Many exotic locales—Rwanda, Samoa, Italy, Argentina—are featured in this memoir. Which descriptions are most vivid? Which place would you most like to visit? Why?

9. Fraser is often self-deprecating, and describes herself as impatient, judgmental, and hard. “I always say what’s on my mind, even when my mind isn’t fully engaged,” she says. How would you describe Laura? 

10. Fraser believes her mother “did eventually manage to have it all” with a fifty-year marriage, children, and a career. Do you agree? Do you think Fraser is managing to “have it all”? She struggles between cozy domesticity and the lure of adventure and travel. Do you struggle between those two ways of living? Would you trade places with Fraser? Do you think you can “have it all,” and if not, what sacrifices have you made?

11. Fraser believes she was meant to be a writer. She says she was handed “gifts of language and communication” and she has a responsibility “to use them to benefit others, to bring darkness to light, to illuminate circumstances that otherwise might be left hidden, unnoticed, and unexplained.” What dark corners do you think she’s illuminated in this memoir?


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