Bria’s just graduated high school, and the future lies open ahead of her. Except, she doesn’t quite see it. She feels stuck. Lost, even. Everything she’s ever felt passionate about is no longer making her feel what she once felt; that excitement has faded. Then one day she runs across a brochure advertising the Global Vagabonds and decides this no strings attached adventure to Central America is exactly what she needs.
When she gets there, though, the Global Vagabonds aren’t what she expected at all. It’s guided group tours — not what Bria wants at all. Not to mention, Bria’s decades younger than anyone else on the trip. She wants what the girl she sat beside on the plane has ahead of her: a trip of backpacking, adventuring, exploring, and without set agendas. After a trip to one of Central America’s most famous market places, Bria takes up a boy on an offer to visit their camp (away from the Global Vagabonds’s reserved housing).
Turns out, throwing caution to the wind and leaving the pre-planned activities of the group was the best thing that could happen to Bria.
Wanderlove is a story about travel, but more than that, it’s a story about finding yourself. As readers, we know something’s going on with Bria to make her lose her passion in art and in the open future ahead of her, but we’re not told what happened. It’s not until she’s ditched her tour group and hooks up with Rowan (and his sister) we get to know what’s going on. Bria’s boyfriend, the one who encouraged her to apply to one of Southern California’s most renowned art schools, dumped her. And he didn’t just dump her; he left her high and dry after she was accepted to the art school and he wasn’t. Art school was his idea, and she applied so she could stay close to him. Bria explains these things to Rowan and the reader slowly, and as she does, we begin to understand why she’s lost so much of her passion. When Toby dumped her, she lost her sense of self and her plans for the future. All of the things she’d planned — all the things revolving around him because she’d given so much for him — just fell apart.
Wanderlove focuses primarily on Bria and Rowan, and both characters are private, reserved, and quite thoughtful. The thing is, those characteristics manifest so differently in each of them. Bria is afraid to make commitments, while Rowan refuses to make commitments because he’s been burned in the past. In traveling together, though, they learn to trust one another and they come to understand the baggage one another carries. There’s a real breaking down to build back up again, and it’s vital to both characters. What I liked so much was that both were hurting, and neither of them took it upon themselves to say they were hurting. They didn’t lay their problems out for one another left and right. It’s a very gradual process of learning to trust and learning to work through. Moreover, it’s also a very gradual process of learning to love themselves and learning that maybe, it’s okay to love one another, too. Yes, there’s romance and yearning in both Bria and Rowan — something you’d expect because of their isolation and their shared interest in traveling — but it’s by no means an instant chemistry. Instead, they have to work toward it, and both characters are reluctant to make any moves with one another. It’s careful and tenuous, and in being that way, I found myself rooting for them to end up together.
I think the line in the whole book that stood out to me, and one that I think will stand out to most readers is one Bria utters: “My problems might be superficial on a global scale, but they’re real to me.” In a field of contemporary YA literature with heavy issues, it was refreshing to read a story where the main character’s biggest problem is simply feeling lost and sad after a relationship she’d invested so much time into. Rowan’s baggage is a bit heavier, but this isn’t really his story. It’s Bria’s. So many readers will relate to her because she’s real and she’s having a hard time dealing with issues that face typical teen readers.
Setting is one of the defining characteristics of Wanderlove. Hubbard writes Central America with expertise, and it was easy to fall into and love the world. It’s lush and vibrant, and it’s the ideal setting to allow Bria to grow. It inspired Bria to reconnect not only with herself, but also with her art. She brought a sketchbook with her on her trip, and it’s not until she’s in the landscape that she’s able to finally pick up her pencil again and sketch. Her eyes are open to the world around her and she realizes she can grasp it with the artistic talent she has inside her — the experiences here and the art she can make belong wholly to her. At the onset of her time with Rowan, Bria is warned by Rowan’s sister that he can experience bouts of wanderlove. While this worries Bria, the truth is that she discovers she and Rowan share this sense of desire to love and appreciate the world around them.
There’s a great metaphor in the setting, as well: Bria’s breaking away from her group and the comfort and security of a planned out route is, of course, symbolic of learning how to explore. It’s important for her to have this time to figure it out on her own, and she does. Even though she spends much of the story with Rowan, she retreats to her sketch book to have this exploration. She still has something wholly her own, and when this is compromised, we get to not only see her true colors, but Rowan’s, as well. Although it could be easy for Bria to become a girl dependent on a boy — remember, the story starts because Toby breaks up with her and suddenly, her plans for the future that was once developed around him are shaken — she’s not. She’s an independent spirit, and she never strays from it. I think that’s what made the romance so satisfying. It was on her own accord the entire time.
One more element worth mentioning is that this book also includes sketches. Bria’s got her sketchbook, but we actually get to see it. Hubbard provides not only the story in the book, but also the illustrations. There aren’t a lot, so it’s hardly a graphic novel, but the illustrations gave the setting and the story that much more impact. I feel like I got to know Bria even better because of the sketches. It was like peeking right into her private thoughts.
Wanderlove will appeal to readers who love travel stories, as well as those who appreciate contemporary ya stories but don’t necessarily want to read one dealing with heavy issues. Bria is an average girl, and never once is that a bad thing. Readers who like character-driven stories will find Bria’s one worth watching. Kirsten Hubbard impressed me with her debut novel, Like Mandarin, and I have to say she impressed me just as much with Wanderlove. She’s one to keep an eye on, as her writing and her story telling are compelling, engaging, and easy to relate to, both as a teen and as a female. Will this story work for male readers? Some, maybe. But I don’t think there’s anything wrong in saying Hubbard has a knack for tapping into the female mind and tinkering with some of the issues girls feel they’re alone in having. She does it well.
Review copy received from the publisher. Wanderlove will be available March 13.
Kelly Jensen is a former librarian turned editor for Book Riot. She's the author of IT HAPPENS: A Guide to Contemporary Realistic Fiction for the YA Reader and the forthcoming Feminism For The Real World (Algonquin Young Readers, Spring 2017).