We drown our lives in prescribed certainty. Certainty that there is a single way to live correctly. A guidebook, as Wallace says. A book that makes lives small. And when things don’t follow the designated path, we encounter crisis. This is exactly what Meet You There focuses on. The danger of trying to fit into a mould that isn’t yours. It’s something I’ve talked about it in other reviews (specifically this one for Broken Harbour). This idea that specific material items or life events make us more or less worthy of social acceptance. And the stigma of not falling in line.
Much like Robin, I was raised on a small town mentality (No need to get defensive. Small towns work for some people. Maybe these things are also learned in cities. I don’t know; that wasn’t my experience). Communities where there is an acceptable way to go from teenager to grown up. You meet the perfect someone (or usually, more accurately, simply someone from the appropriate social circle). You date. You get married. You buy a house (usually outside your means, but hey, it looks like the kind of house that holds happiness). You have children. These are the expectations for both men and women. If you follow these steps, you will be happy. Or that’s what you’re told. At the very least, you’ll look happy from the outside. Robin is leading this exact life. She’s done everything she’s been told will make her happy. That will make her life what it’s supposed to be. It works for everyone else, so why isn’t it working for her. Now, I don’t want to say that this life is a bad choice. Hell, it’s probably the perfect life choice for some people. But there’s a key word in that sentence that’s missing from Robin’s life – choice. Her husband’s life has been guided by his mother, who is positive that the designated path is the only one. Anything else is deviant. It going to spoil future good. And he believes her. So Robin just follows along, cause he has a good life, so it must work. Robin has never felt like she’s been allowed to make a choice. Never learned to make decisions. She doesn’t know how to make a choice. She’s sure there is a book she’s supposed to follow. And without her guide, she doesn’t know what to do. So she simply follows along, desperate for a comfort and security she can never find.
Now, I’m going to be upfront here (and from here on there are some spoilers – read on at your own peril). I don’t really like Robin for most of the book. But I’ve said it in multiple reviews; I do not need to like my protagonist. I just need her to be relatable. And Wallace does this well. Robin is a real person. Even if her insecurities are overwhelming and cumbersome. She’s excruciatingly unsure. There were times I wanted to shake her and tell her to stop with all the drugs, throw out fabric man, and get her shit together. And there were other times when I wanted to sit and talk to her. To listen. To make her actually talk instead of pretending everything is fine. And sometimes, I just want to reassure her that eventually, she’s going to find her way. She just needs to be willing to take some control.
Floundering in her current life, Robin reaches for the first buoys she sees – Jaceb and Nohl. Both men seem to be trekking without guides. Stomping through the underbrush of life. They’ve tossed their maps into the wind. This is exactly what she’s been looking for. Salvation from the ordinary. From the mundane. From the only future ever presented to Robin. This must be the thing that will save her. These two men. So different from each other. So different from her. So willing to make her decisions for her. Once again, she can just follow. But now it’s a different path, so it’s going to be better. Different is better, right? This isn’t an abnormal life event. Lots of us go through these moments of crisis. Are we making the right choices? Would someone else do it better? Can someone else just do it for me? Just for a little while.
So what happens when the exact wrong person comes into your life at exactly the right time? Jaceb is the wrong person. He is the worst possible person for a girl like Robin. As broken and fragile as she is, but covering it in perfectly certain uncertainty. He’s unhappy in his marriage. She’s unhappy in hers. There’s an undeniable something between them. It comes together in a perfect emotional storm. And that of course leads to epic numbers of terrible life choices. But again, Robin’s not really making any choice except the one to follow. From the outside, their relationship is the worst possible thing Robin could do. Don’t get me wrong, I have some pretty strong feelings about adultery, but I have equally strong feelings about staying in an unfixable relationship because it looks nicer – but those are for another day and this relationship is important for Robin’s growth. Without it, she may never have found her way out of her misery. She may have been trapped in her loveless marriage with kids and a house – just because those were the ‘right’ choices. Meeting Jaceb may have saved her. Call it spooky hippy mumbo jumbo (although if you do, you’ll probably have some issues with this book), but I think certain people come into our lives at certain times to influence our paths. Not every person, but certain people – good or bad- force us to confront the things in ourselves that we’ve broken or neglected.
Jaceb starts this process for Robin. He lulls her in with his sense of confidence. The surety that he’s not following a guidebook. But the more she follows him, the more she realizes that he’s no more guided than she is. He’s not living without a book; he’s just using his to cut lines of cocaine. He’s lost in a fog of addiction. His decisions aren’t guided by freedom. They’re a desperate need to quash his desires and stay on the path he’s been shown. A path very similar to Robin’s. And when he proves unreliable, she focuses her attention on Nohl. The roommate who fills the empty space left by Tyler, then by Jaceb. Nohl’s more overt in his insertion into Robin’s life. He knows she’s doing it wrong, so he just decides to fix it for her. He’s exactly what Robin’s been looking for. Someone to be her new guide. Who will write a book for her that’s different. But Nohl’s equally as damaged as Jaceb and Robin. He’s not fleeing a marriage, but he’s fleeing his own trauma. And he does it by throwing himself into new fad after new fad. When something doesn’t work, he immediately throws it away and puts on a new persona. Never giving anything time to settle and become his. He can’t be himself. None of them can.
These three characters are all so flawed. And lost. Lost in a world of people that have it all together. But as I said earlier, just because they’re wrong and toxic for each other, doesn’t mean they can’t be a catalyst for change. Without the pain she suffers in these two relationships, Robin would never have found her way out. Found that the only thing that will resolve her need for guidance is through solitude. That allowing herself to live in her pain is the only way she’ll ever get beyond it. That there isn’t just one guidebook. There are dozens of them. And that’ll we’ll switch the one we’re using throughout our lives.
Personally, I like to think of it more like a path than a book. And our paths mean we see different things. The right path for me isn’t necessarily the right path for anyone else. My path means that the part of this book that sticks out is the social mores and obligations thrust on us to create this one tiny box of rightness. That the people that choose to live outside this box are somehow other. That we are doing things wrong. And when we come to terms with the falsehood of this belief, we find our path is clear. For you, your reading path through Meet You There might be different. Maybe for you the focus of this book is the sneaky spiral of addiction. Or the pain of adultery. Or the fragile relationship between adult children and their parents. Or the freedoms and restrictions of religion.
Whatever it is, there’s something in this book for everyone to connect with. Some moment in life when we felt shaky and uncertain. Wallace captures these moments of insecurity perfectly and reassures us that somewhere, there is an end; it just might take some time to get there. And even if you need a little help along the way, the only person who can forge your path is you.