I am seriously in love with this book. I think it is one of the best ya novels I have ever read (and I have read and loved a lot). At first you could be mistaken for thinking it is just a run-of-the-mill piece of travel fiction but it is so much more than that. The tone itself was filled with wonder and excitement and the locations practically jumped of the page. I read afterwards that the author Kirsten Hubbard had been a backpacker herself and it shows. It feels like you are getting a real glimpse into the experience, a feeling of immersion lacking in other books I have read of the same ilk. After reading I really wanted to go and visit all these far-off wondrous places myself but I will settle for having experienced them with Bria Sandoval, the main character of the novel.
At the start of the novel, 18 year old Bria Sandoval is embarking on a journey, one which she hopes will heal the still-aching wounds of her past. Bria is just getting over a relationship with a fellow artist (who is gradually over the course of the book revealed to have been emotionally abusive to her and has sapped all her creativity and enery). Bria is lacking in confidence and has given up her one great love - art. She is hoping that the trip across Central America will fill the void left inside of her but that doesn't seem likely when it turns out that the trip she has booked is filled with older tourists and she stands out like a sore thumb. She doesn't quite fit in with the image of a true backpacker either, her apparel and equipment not 'cool' looking or functional enough to blend in with the droves of young backpackers she sees around everywhere.
Bria somehow falls in with a pair of travelling siblings, Starling and Rowan, after a trick played by Rowan ends up with her stranded with them overnight on an Island. At Starling's urging, Bria is convinced to abandon her tour group and she sets out on an adventure across 'true' Central America, off the beaten track on a journey of self-discovery and wonder. Starling, Rowan's humanitarian sister, is someone who Bria would dearly like to be; outspoken, smart and confident. Rowan, a dive-instructor and long-term backpacker, is also an incitement for Bria. He is exciting and attractive but there is something in his past that he is trying to escape from. Initially the two of them argue very frequently but there is something that draws them together. In Rowan, Bria finds something of a kindred spirit though she is reluctant to get involved with someone again after the meltdown of her previous relationship. Rowan appears to have a brotherly sort of affection for her anyway so Bria does not see their friendship as being a problem, even when Startling ditches them and they are left travelling alone together to Laughingbird Caye where a diving job waits for Rowan and the 'Lobsterfest' festival will soon draw the hoards of young backpackers. Bria and Rowan begin to get even closer as they travel but their past is only ever a step away from destroying their new-found connection.
Words truly cannot convey just how much I adored this novel. I loved the setting and the writing just totally drew me into the story and I was swept away in it with the characters. I was there experiencing everything with Bria and gradually falling in love with Rowan along with her. Their connection was a beautiful thing to behold. The build up between them is slow but steady, almost palpable, you feel their attraction even before they do. I was rooting for them to get together and was on edge several times when i did not know what was going to happen. Both were strong characters with many flaws, both trying (not always successfully) to escape the past. What I liked is that both of them grew by getting to know and rely on the other but they had their moments of individual growth too.
Bria was such a great protagonist. At the start she is unsure of herself and trying desperately to fit in. I was cringing at some of the things she was doing and saying but I totally related to her and got why she was acting this way. She had been through a lot and her confidence was practically non-existent. It was amazing seeing her change throughout her journey and at the end she is a far more confident young women, who doesn't need to rely on others for help. Rowan was also an amazing character. He comes off a bit sketchy at first but as the layers are peeled back and Bria slowly gets to know and understand him, you realize that he is just as much of a lost soul as she. It is really no wonder the two of them form such a strong connection. Rowan is a former bad-boy trying to get his life back on track. He was trying to do this before meeting Bria so its not a situation where the good girl is able to change the bad boy (I hate that trope - it never works in real-life). Rowan is such a great character (I hesitate to use character - both he and Bria feel like real people to me). He is carrying a world of hurt and pain but is actively trying to turn his life around. Bria and Rowan both learn a great deal and gain strength from each other. Their bond ultimately helps them to heal their wounds.
I really loved Wanderlove. The lyrical, almost whimsical quality of the prose and the illustrations dotted throughout gave it an almost magical feel. The exotic setting was evocative and inspirational but the real strength for me lay in the characters and character building. Bria and Rowan were amazing and I loved getting to know them throughout the book. The love story didn't overtake the novel at all, it was just there, slowly building in intensity in the background until the perfect moment when you realise just how deeply the pair have come to care for each other. Actually, the story itself is a slow-build as well, though never in a boring, drawn-out way. Things are revealed a bit at a time and I found myself unable to put the book down (I read it in a single sitting - not unusual for me as I do frequently get caught up but there was no way I was putting this one down until I got to the end).
Once I got to the denouement I felt emotional - happy but also upset that the book was over so soon and I would not get to read any more about Bria and Rowan. Both felt so authentically real to me that I will really miss them. This is one book I can already tell I will be re-reading again in the very-near future. It truly has had a profound effect on me and will stay with me for a long time.