They say travel can make or break a relationship, but what happens when you travel with family and, more specifically, with the person who birthed and raised you…
While the travel fiction genre often focuses on exciting adventures, delightful summer romances or spiritual epiphanies, Susan Johnson’s latest memoir Aphrodite’s Breath veers way off course to expose the complicated relationship between an ageing mother and daughter who have never really seen eye to eye, but decide to travel together for an extended period of time.
In her 60s, divorced and with two adult sons who no longer need her, Johnson decides to return to the idyllic Greek island of Kythera, where she remembers spending youthful summers in her late teens and early 20s. The only thing holding her back is the guilt she feels in being so far away from her 85-year-old mother, Barbara. So Johnson invites her along, and Barbara accepts.
When we’re young and carefree or in the midst of a life crisis, embarking on an overseas trip is something we dive into heart first, with the practicalities remaining an afterthought. Chance encounters and unexpected diversions are a given. In Aphrodite’s Breath, however, the reader must first endure several chapters and then ongoing details of the planning and daily motions of the two characters, including the search for a villa to suit not only the needs of older and more cautious travellers, but to also fit with their sensible budget.
Unsurprisingly, things do not go to plan and, despite all their careful preparations, Barbara immediately insists on taking the upstairs bedroom (despite finding the stairs difficult) and deems the villa unsuitable for habitation – too draughty and cold. Arriving in the middle of winter probably doesn’t help, but weather is not their only issue.
Tensions quickly grow as the women attempt to navigate the day-to-day reality of living on the remote island, with the comforts of home no longer providing a buffer for their decades of conflict and differences. Johnson tries desperately to accommodate her mother, looking for the positives and holding on to the nostalgic memories of her youth, but Barbara’s overpowering influence and constant complaints are just too hard for anyone to ignore.
Thankfully, as summer approaches, they move to a more suitable villa, and there is a short reprieve as they enjoy the sunshine and saltwater at secluded beaches, and indulge in the fresh Mediterranean food and wine. Johnson makes new friends, attempts to learn Greek and is courted by a smooth-talking Frenchman – and there’s the possibility of a romance brewing.
While there were parts of this memoir I eagerly devoured and enjoyed, I mostly found myself hoping and waiting for an exciting Greek island adventure to begin. As someone with a strained mother/daughter dynamic of my own, I took this story as a cautionary tale and powerful reminder of the benefits of travelling alone.
But if you enjoy exploring knotty details of domestic relationships and want to hear about the myths and folktales of the many women who have lived and loved on Kythera (birthplace of Aphrodite the goddess of love), are looking for beach, taverna and church recommendations and/or want to learn more about the geography and history of the island, this book will be for you.
Aphrodite’s Breath by Susan Johnson
Publisher: Allen & Unwin