This book starts with an arrival in a place far from home and ends with a homecoming of sorts, a return to a familiar place and family and a feeling of normalcy, though it isn’t the book’s opening trip to India that Shopsin’s returning from. (The three cities of the book’s title are indeed visited in that order, though it’s really more like Mumbai New York Scranton New York, but that wouldn’t be as good a title.) The book isn’t exactly about travel, though it has travel in it: it’s partly about that trip to India, but also about, as the flap copy puts it, “the harrowing adventure that unfolds” at that trip’s end. That made me a little nervous: I don’t really like to read about harrowing adventures. But this book won me over: I started it on a Monday morning in London and finished it later that day, in an airplane somewhere over the Atlantic.

Part of the appeal of this book is how well-designed it is: Shopsin is a graphic designer and illustrator, and her husband, Jason Fulford, is a photographer whose black-and-white photos from their trip to India are included in the text (along with drawings by Shopsin), so it’s not surprising that it’s visually very appealing. The book consists of prose in numbered sections, with illustrations in line with the text and photos getting their own pages. There’s a lot of white space: lots of pages only have a few paragraphs of text on them, and one page consists of just one sentence (“In the middle of the night I wake up and eat all the oranges” (6)). The writing, meanwhile, is matter-of-fact, present-tense: it brings the reader close to Shopsin’s story, which is a good strategy, as this post by Matthew Simmons on HTMLGIANT explains nicely.

I love the details in the first section of the book, when Shopsin and Fulford are traveling in India: little moments combine to create pictures of places. In Mumbai: “A beige one-button mouse skips along the street. A little girl is dragging it by the cord like an old pull toy” (8). Also in Mumbai: there’s a stall on the street where you can bring a handwritten letter to a man and pay him to type it for you. Shopsin and Fulford do: “The typist follows each of our letters with an old ruler to keep track while he types. He corrects two spelling errors and “color” turns to “colour.” I think it can’t get any better, but then he types the addresses on the envelopes” (9). In Mysore, where Shopsin and Fulford find a letterpress shop: “The street smells like ink. Small shops are bursting with paper and presses” (83). I like the kind of travelers Shopsin and Fulford are: at the letterpress shop, they decide to place an order for pads of paper for friends at home, with their friends’ nicknames printed on the top; also in Mysore, they end up watching a school talent show, joining the “crowds of people [filing] into a public auditorium” one evening (91). I like the details in the section about Shopsin and Fulford’s return to New York, too: Shopsin going downstairs and getting breakfast from her favorite deli, where there’s a newspaper clipping on a wall: “The story is about a dangerous intersection located in downtown Brooklyn. The article has a photo of some blurry cars and my deli’s awning circled proudly in red marker. In the photo, “You go girl” is spray-painted above my deli. I always took the turquoise bubble letters to heart and was sad last year when my landlord painted over the graffiti” (134). And that harrowing adventure? Yep, it’s harrowing, and well-told: Shopsin captures a time of crisis and the way the people around her, including her husband and sister, supported her as she made her way through it.

Though the writing style and subject matter aren’t particularly similar, this book made me think of Leanne Shapton’s Swimming Studies, which I also loved: apparently I’m a sucker for memoirs by illustrators who do a really good job of telling their stories in both words and pictures?

Leave a Reply

Subscribe without commenting