“Book Review: The Perfect Culture”
Reviewed by Liam Anthony
An entertaining coming-of-age novel that combines self-discovery with the importance of seeing the world
The Perfect Culture by author Brent Robins endeavors to marry the category of the coming-of-age novel with a fictional travel memoir. This book shines a light on the significance of immersing yourself in other cultures and overcoming the cultural faux pas which we inevitably commit when traveling. Robins conveys all of this through humor, empathy, and by using a protagonist who is easy to relate to. Therefore, readers ought to find this one a compelling read.
The novel’s protagonist is Thomas, a college student who turns his back on the debauched side of college life, favoring intellectual stimulus and history. Due to his social alienation at university, which subsequently serves as the impetus for Thomas to inquire about the possibility of working abroad, he is offered a job working at a hotel in Bordeaux. Thus, his adventure begins.
Thomas’s inner thoughts constantly punctuate the story with humor. ”I do not want to disappoint him by being a boorish American and guzzling down my beer and belching extremely loudly.” Unlike his time in university, when Thomas is in Bordeaux, he feels unsophisticated. There’s more to learn.
Robins deserves credit in the creation of his main character. On the one hand, Thomas comes across as haughty because of his arrogance toward certain people whose main objective is to drink themselves into an oblivion. On the other hand, he realizes his lack of cultural knowledge, resulting in a more vulnerable character than we first perceive.
“Foreign travel, generally speaking, is a bit like wearing an uncomfortable pair of shoes. In some places, it is analogous to a slightly uncomfortable pair, and elsewhere, it is equivalent to an extremely uncomfortable pair of shoes that is three sizes too big. Much growth and development can result from these experiences, but I have to be willing to wear the shoes that don’t fit.“ This shoe metaphor is one of many myriad references about Thomas’s adapting to the countries where he travels and the obstacles one experiences when traveling and working in a foreign country. From the ordering of apple juice instead of wine in France to the lack of linguistic competence in Japanese to the eventual political ambivalence he feels in Israel, the reader is fortunately a witness to his mistakes and learning.
Brent Robins provides an assiduous approach to writing about the countries Thomas visits, and although it is insightful and engaging for readers who are interested in the historical context of a place, at times it can read more like a nonfiction book. This is most apparent in the part of the book when Thomas is in Kyoto, Japan. I think Robins’s strength throughout this novel has been his character, and as a reader, I would have liked to have seen more about his friendships in this place, or even the flourishing of a possible love story. However, it can be argued that the author’s intention was to provide his reader with what has been the personal becoming of Thomas.
The Perfect Culture is an enjoyable read all the way down to Robins’s acute and observational writing style. The author creates a relatable protagonist in Thomas who shares both comedic and poignant moments. The novel will encourage young readers to pack a bag and leave the perimeters of their everyday lives, and even for me, as a thirty-something-year-old to take a sabbatical and be Thomas again for a year.
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