I really enjoyed this book. It made me smile, I loved reading it, I was happy while I was reading and after I'd finished, and I hope, if you like contemporary romance or road trip romances or both, you'll pick this up. I must caution about the ending, as it was disappointing, considering how much I enjoyed the book, but even with that caveat, I think this book is worth your time.
Lexie Marshall is looking for a cycling companion to complete the TransAmerica Trail with, biking from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic across the US. She ends up with Tom Geiger because Tom's sister Taryn answered the ad for him, pretending to be him. And Lexie was posting the ad as “Alex,” allowing people to think she was a guy because initial ads that revealed she was a female ended up with conversations that veered too close to harassment. Tom is not interested in biking with anyone, and when he meets Lexie, he really doesn't want to bike with her, but his sense of honor and fairness won't let him abandon her, so off they go, with Tom promising himself he'll find someone to take his place somewhere.
I love contemporary romance, and I love road trip romances, so this is an ideal combination for me. I love travel stories because they are about being outside your comfort zone — and being outside of comfort altogether. And watching characters meet someone who unsettles their emotional autopilot and makes them uncomfortable, possibly in spicy ways, is similar to that physical journey. Falling in love is not comfortable either. Plus, because travel requires some paring down to essentials, that ultimately can apply to the characters as well: as a reader, I get a sense of who the characters are because they are facing a new problem or challenge every day. There's no comfort of autopilot when every day is different. And since both characters are biking across the country, there isn't much comfort at all.
Lexie is enthusiastic and curious and ready to make the most of her adventure, but also cautious and attentive to planning. She has a computer on her bike to tell her when to shift gears, what her mileage and distance are at present and overall – and has mapped out the route and daily riding goals for the entire journey. There's not much room for deviation or improvisation in her plan, which is why it's surprising for her to find herself turning off the prescribed path and following Tom when he invites her to explore with him. I was surprised how quickly Lexie adopted Tom's perspective about veering from her plan, especially since she spent a lot of their time together ticked off or outright furious at him, though.
There were a number of extraordinary features to this book. First, Knox describes the changing American landscape in such a way that you never feel the monotony of biking. Every chapter and each state is different, and the descriptions of how the rolling hills and endless plains of one state vs. another are the opposite of boring. Lexie is curious about everything she's seeing, and Tom has biked in some of the most grueling trails in the world, and both of them have a healthy curiosity and awareness of how the landscape, and riding over and through it, is part of the tour they're on. The changing landscape is almost a character in the book, and the landscape changes with the progress of their relationship – hilly and rocky through the mountains, difficult and challenging, then smoother, with unexpected obstacles around some curves. The TransAmerica Trail is a wonderful setting for a romance, and Knox rocked it.
Thoreau and Walden also play a role in this book, both in the exploration of isolation from society and in the exploration of deliberate living. Tom has cut himself off from society for several years, and carries a lot of guilt and weight on his own shoulders, much of which motivates him to ride with Lexie until a better riding partner can be found for her. Moreover, their different interpretations of Walden reveal more about their individual personalities as well. There were several layers to Lexie and Tom, and to their backstories, and I appreciated how little was wasted in terms of developing the characters.
The development of the characters and their dialogue as they move from angry acquaintances to friends to lovers is the best part.
Here's Tom talking to his sister Taryn, the only member of his family he communicates with:
“Tom. You can’t ride your bicycle across the country alone. It’s insane. You’ll end up being slaughtered by a serial killer.”
“Taryn, I’m thirty-five, single, tattooed, and antisocial. I’m the serial killer.”
“Okay, point taken. But you could get hit by a car and bleed to death by the side of the road.”
“How would riding with another person prevent that?”
“It wouldn’t, but he could call me on his cell phone so you could tell me you love me with your dying breath.”
Tom is a total grump for much of the first few chapters, and Lexie on principal decides she's not speaking to him until he speaks to her first. While riding, this isn't a problem. But while they're eating or setting up tents, it's an exercise in stubbornness. Lexie's response to her own decision to give Tom the silent treatment is hilarious. First, she starts a notebook of all the questions she would like to ask him but refuses, and then challenges him to a silent duel of hot sauces, which was easily one of my favorite scenes in the book.
Tom walks a fine line between being antisocial and being a total dick, and occasionally he falls over the dick line into total dickhead territory. I could understand it because of the degree to which Lexie was shaking up his determined isolation. Tom was as determined to remain antisocial and isolated as much as Lexie was determined to stay on her planned schedule and route for the trip across the US. His relinquishing his isolation and antisocial habits was a much greater struggle for him than Lexie's decision to follow Tom and explore without a schedule. I was irritated with Tom for being a giant dick sometimes as much as I was surprised that Lexie didn't struggle too much at all to change her way of thinking.
Unfortunately, the pace of the first 3/4ths of the book was perfect, and the last 1/4 was rushed and unsatisfying, especially the end. Because each day is taken one tire turn at a time, both Tom and Lexie reveal themselves slowly, and we learn about them bit by bit as the miles count up on their journey. Even though Tom and Lexie are telling each other about themselves through much of the book, the reader is also shown their backstory and how its shaped their behaviors in how they act on the journey as well. Showing vs. telling is well balanced all the way until the end, and it seemed really rushed at the end when all the resolutions happened within a few pages. Too much wrapped up too fast and too shallowly – the reader is effectively told and not shown what happens. Plus, because of all the back matter at the end of the book, I thought I had a lot more to read. If there had been story instead of promo for other books in the remaining sections, the book would have ended in a much more balanced fashion. I wish there were some sort of a marker in the timeline of a digital book that would tell me “THIS IS THE END” and “ALL THIS OTHER STUFF IS EXCERPTS.” My misunderstanding of how much I had left to read made the abruptness of the ending even more frustrating.
My disappointment with the ending left a lasting impression on me as I thought about how to grade this book, especially because the pacing of most of the book was superb. That said, the experience of reading this book is one I hope you'll try, as, aside from that ending and all that damn backmatter, there was a lot to smile about.