chelseaReviewed by
Chelsea Carrick, of Wind City Books
Photo provided by Chelsea Carrick

No Baggage by Clara Bensen contains two of the things I typically won’t tolerate in my book selections: the modern romance and the contemporary travel narrative. It’s not that either of these things are bad, but they are difficult to do well. When I hear that a book has romance, I assume it will be filled with convoluted descriptions of longing gazes and less than subtle caresses, something I simply don’t have the stomach for. If I hear of a contemporary travel narrative, I worry that it will be a narrative rife with Elizabeth Gilbert-style paternalism; a story filled with “I’m paying a lot of money to find myself” internal monologues that are self-righteous at best and culturally irresponsible at worst.

noBaggage_clara_bensen_coverBut this book isn’t that. Based on the essay originally featured in Salon magazine called The Craziest OkCupid Date Ever, the book tells the true story of (as the title of the essay suggests) the craziest OkCupid date ever. Most people who pursue an online love interest go out to coffee, or a movie, or dinner, or to an early death at the hands of a crazed mad man psychotically baiting unassuming young singles using online dating platforms. But, Clara and her digitally compatible date don’t do any of those. They buy a plane ticket and set off for Istanbul, the starting point for their three-week long OkCupid date that will ultimately span eight countries. And, they do it with only one outfit and small purse worth of hygienic essentials (toothpaste, apparently, is not considered a hygienic essential).

If this seems like a bad idea, that’s because it is. Clara does everything every young woman has ever been cautioned not to do. She trusts some strange man she just met. She sleeps on strangers’ couches. She hitchhikes. She does not always brush her teeth before bed and she does it all in one green sundress.

Often times though, the things you’re not supposed to do are exactly the things you need to do. For Clara, a disillusioned college graduate having recently experienced a heavy bout of depression, going on this extensive OkCupid date with the highly eccentric Jeff is the only thing that seemed worth doing. And ultimately, it was worth doing.

The narrative premise in and of itself is intriguing, but it’s not so self-centered as to neglect the social and political history of the region. Not only are we privy to the bizarre events of this trip and to the past that led to it, but we are also allowed to better grasp the places they visit through a first-hand and obviously well-researched lens.

It’s a story that can cater to even the most cynical and a-romantic of readers. As one of these readers myself, it’s not so terrible to occasionally be reminded that there are certain circumstances where it is okay to be a little bit (only a little bit and only very rarely) cheesy, it’s okay to be temporarily disillusioned, and sometimes it’s even okay to momentarily suspend yourself in awe at the suggestions the world seems to offer.