Book Review: Finding Lily

I really wanted to like Finding Lily. Why? I mean, beside wanting to enjoy everything I read? Well, I know the story behind getting the book done, and I know Richard Clewes (the author) and the person to whom the book is dedicated.

But I didn't like it. If you're a reader of memoirs (or travel lit, for that matter) you'll probably end up reading it. Why? Clewes is a consummate salesman. He's worked in advertising for ages and boy, does the man know how to sell. The book looks good, his promo material suggests that his book is full of the insights derived from travel, that to read the book is to accompany him on a journey, the end of which is rich with revelation.

That's the thing about advertising - all the time and effort is spent on creating a positive impression of what the product is so you buy it, rather than actually making the product everything they suggest it is.

Clewes' is not a bad writer - at least, not when he's talking about that which he knows. His memoir begins with his wife (who was manic-depressive) committing suicide. The diary entries are honest, stark, and very affecting.

To cope with his grief, or escape it, he decides to take a trip around the world. Fair enough, I'd want to get away, too. Unfortunately, as we gradually see over the course of his cleverly named chapters, Clewes doesn't know how to write about travel. Or, if I were to be very judgmental, how to travel at all.

Then, we get Richard the ad-man, Richard the 'writer' going back over his journals, his experiences and, though writing them in the present, clearly - blatantly - trying to include and/or derive meaning from quotidian details (he runs. A lot).

Clewes, despite his frequent protests of being 'broke', is a wealthy individual. This wouldn't be a problem except that his assumption of wealth and privilege permeates every experience. Yes, he flies first class, and takes the time to talk about the first class meal, and the first class flatware. An entire chapter is devoted to Air Singapore and their one-way silverware (rather than the post 9/11 plastic).

What does this have to do with the death? With his escapism? Well, you see, he draws his food. He's rediscovered drawing as a way to experience things, to meditate, call it what you will. He draws everything.

The horrible irony of it is that he draws without seeing. Clewes writes about staying in expensive hotels, eating expensive food, having colourful conversations with the staff, and his minor excursions to museums. And he doesn't get a real, genuine experience from it.

He goes to a bunch of museums in London, and talks about Monet's obsession with light and Picasso's obsession with sex. Not well and to no purpose. There is nothing new here. It is an excuse for him to talk about art as if his new sketching habit gives him insight. It does not.

What is interesting and good in the book is when Clewes' is writing honestly about his confusion about his wife's death, about her illness - it is bare and clear and real. When he mocks advertising, (i.e Death doesn't need re-branding, doesn't need a flash on the package saying "Now, with More Grief!") he is funny and hints at a kind of insight that never truly appears.

Sadly, this is drowned by reams of weak 'travel' writing, where he situates himself as a rich white man experiencing life with the kind of luxury 99% of us will never know. He's like those people who go to an exotic island and never leave the resort. Never shops in the market or sees the tin-roofed houses where the locals live, and never sees what he has.

The few times when he makes conversation with the hotel staff and locals, we get more hints of what the book could have been - for a second we see lives that could have genuinely touched Clewes, mirrored his own experiences of loss, taught him something real.

Instead, what do we get? (WARNING: SPOLIER) Some chick in New Zealand draws a picture of a lily in his sketchbook and tells a sweet story of how, throughout her childhood, she named everything she loved 'Lily', and Richard needs to 'find his lily'. And guess what? Drawing is his Lily! It's helped him overcome his feelings of guilt and confusion and brought him back to life!

In case you can't tell, those '!'s are sarcastic. Rather than listening to the other people in the bar who tell him the amazing sights of NZ that he could see (and, incidentally, sketch), he's happy to dismiss them and focus on his doodles of his iPod and his Air New Zealand cup.

Richard Clewes is a nice, friendly guy. And his book does have some honest and good writing in it. But his advertising self takes over more than half of it, and in straining to make tourist-y travel experiences relate and mean something to his 'search for himself', he ends up diluting the whole thing.

The whole attempt to construct some sort of Oprah-like deep and meaningful moment with that 'finding his lily' crap is frankly ridiculous. This should have been a memoir about mental illness and loss and learning to figure out who you are after you lose someone so close to you they are half of your identity. Instead, it's a shoddy bit of travel writing on top of a journal that is occasionally interesting but usually forced and phoney.

All sizzle, no steak.

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