I devour armchair travel memoirs - I find them to be a bargain basement way to travel the world. Because I have an affection for the UK, I try to read everything I can about Great Britain. I picked up A Yank Back to England: The Prodigal Tourist Returns by Denis Lipman, a Brit expat who lives in the DC-area. Lipman along with his wife, Frances, and their little girl, Katie, travel yearly to the UK and rent a cottage. They are then visited by Lipman’s folks – Lew and Jessie, an elderly couple – and Lipman must contend with his increasingly elderly parents, while trying to cram in as much sightseeing and visiting as possible.
I looked to this book in hopes of a lark, like reading Bill Bryson or Peter Mayle - and there are elements of that in A Yank Back to England, but quickly this book harks On Golden Pond, as well. Lipman has an unerring eye for detail, and he chronicles his parents’ foibles and aging processes well – maybe too well. While one understands his desire to visit his homeland, it becomes distressingly clear that his parents are not always up for these jaunts, and the yearly visits seem to take serious tolls on their health – both physical and emotional. I couldn’t help but feel that Lipman was selfishly trying to stave off their age and mortality by cramming a lot of vacation and travel, not considering that his parents were old and not up to it – sometimes I wished he just stayed in London during his holidays, and kept his parents in their home. But Lipman is candidly self-introspective and doesn’t write himself to be a paragon of filial duty; there is angst expressed that he is so far away from his parents, living in the states despite their advanced ages.
As troubling as some of the episodes in the book can get (there’s one particularly dark scene in which the normally-gruff Lew is brought to tears after a scolding), this is still a hugely entertaining book. A big reason for that is, that despite their ages and frailties, Lew and Jessie are still very interesting characters - and Lipman does an expert job of writing them: they come alive with Lipman’s spot on ear for dialogue. Also, Lipman’s a great travel writer and does some admirable research into the areas he travels to – he doesn’t shortchange the audience of the historical context of his sites, nor does he laden the book down with trivia and minutia – instead it’s a great balance of the two.
Along with his charming parents, Lew’s wife, Frances also remains a calming presence. She’s assertive and intelligent, with a graceful patience and a winning curiosity about her surroundings, Frances provides a much-needed balance between the eccentricities of her in-laws and the over-zealous neediness of her husband. It’s important that these distinct voices are all represented, or otherwise one would dominate and spoil the much-appreciated equilibrium that’s a result from this diverse lot of characters.
When reading A Yank Back to England, one should be forewarned that Lipman eschews idealization and romanticism – he’s frank, which is a definite credit to him as a writer, but it does produce a book that will puncture its coziness with some doses of reality (namely illness and infirmity among its aged cast members). But there’s a genuine and relaxed affection for his homeland and his family that is infectious and a joy to read.