Graduates In Wonderland, by Jessica Pan and Rachel Kapelke-Dale

I think if you can make plans that far in advance, you are officially in the adult club. My current life has the same expiration date as my student visa.

Sometimes a book is the literary equivalent of a superfood salad, a glass of white wine, and a warm bath: it just does exactly what you need it to do, and you don’t even feel bad about it. Sometimes that book comes to you by way of a good and trustworthy friend, which is even better. Red and I have been friends since the summer after our junior year of high school, when we met at a state-sponsored summer camp for nerds in Newport News. We’ve written letters and emails and Facebook messages, sent each other playlists and book recommendations, done shots and drunk tea, stayed up late and slept in late, looked at the moon, visited art galleries, disgraced ourselves, and redeemed ourselves. She hears all about my misadventures in Oxford and London, and I hear about her life with her fiance in Ohio. She’s a hard worker and a fierce heart.

Which means that when she sent me a surprise late birthmas (this is a thing) package with two books, I knew perfectly well that they’d be good. I started Graduates In Wonderland the very next morning.

One of the weird things about this stage in your life is that everyone does it differently, but there are enough common denominators for most other peoples’ experiences to be recognizable. That said, you do have to understand that Graduates In Wonderland is the sort of thing–the sort of story–that only exists because of privilege. The night before they graduate, Jessica Pan and Rachel Kapelke-Dale promise to send each other emails every week with honest accounts of their lives in the various foreign cities in which they end up living. Both women went to Brown, an Ivy League, and both have family situations that can provide them with at least some financial support whilst they pursue multiple masters’ degrees and general international adventuring. I know that I write this as the possessor of an Oxford degree, and therefore have limited scope to blather about privilege. I do spend a lot of time worrying about money, however, and what surprised me most about the emails that comprise the book is that very few of them mention any kind of panicking about money. At one point, Rachel gets hit by a car and the insurance pay-out is $10,000, which carries her through the first year of her masters’ in Paris. She doesn’t dwell very much on the fortuitousness of this, which struck me as a bit odd. Then again, because these were emails between friends, maybe that’s why; do friends really write to each other about their money fears? I’m not sure I tell my long-distance buddies about mine. But on the other other hand, these are supposed to be “no-holds-barred” emails, which makes it a little hard to believe that the girls can quit jobs without once mentioning to each other that they’re worried about how they’ll make rent. I’ve been unemployed and soon will be again, and let me tell you, I thought about almost nothing except how I was going to make rent. Maybe I’m the weird one.

If you kind of abandon the idea that this is non-fiction, however, Graduates In Wonderland is pretty charming. (Come on–no matter how “raw and honest” their emails to each other were, there’s been editing.) BUT BUT BUT. Come on now. It’s tremendous fun to read the travails of women your own age, who are also, like you, battling through misery and self-doubt one day, and taking shots with commitment-phobic boys in questionable bars the next. It reminds you that you’re not alone. It makes you hopeful that you’ll make it through. And it brings to the forefront of your mind the brilliance of your friends. After Rachel is unexpectedly and horribly dumped by a Frenchman named Olivier, Jess writes, with the absolute solidarity of a friend:

You want someone who is going to stick around and give you half a chance. Olivier is not this. At least you didn’t waste years on him…But honestly. I want to punch him in the face. I want to take a fish and slap it across his face, while yelling, “NON! NO MAS TOUCHE PAS!”

You are going to be okay. I promise.

If you visit me here, I’ll take you to the farthest place from Paris: St Kilda. It’s the closest thing to a beach in Melbourne–a strip of sand on a bay. The streets are lined with fish-and-chip shops, cyclists, and bakeries. We’ll lie in the sun, and I’ll make sure your pale skin is completely covered in SPF 50 sunblock. I’ll find a strapping Australian guy named Jono to rub it in for you.

That’s love, you guys.

Actually, in some places, this book almost hurts to read, because in among the ridiculous romance escapades and the exploring of new cities and the discoveries of your own competence, there are some really sad moments. Like when one of the girls asks how many times you can move from city to city without losing most of the people you knew in each one. That’s the rootlessness of your twenties. That’s one of the worst things about this life stage, too: the intensity of your friendships, the difficulty of starting them in the first place now that you’re no longer living within a couple hundred yards of everyone you know, and the bereftness, the sense of melancholy, when you realize that you’ll still end up losing most of them. It’s a tough place to be.

It’s also a great place to be. Rachel’s mother tells her, when she gets accepted to a masters’ program in Paris, “In ten years, you won’t be able to do this. So go.” I can’t think about this too hard because it frightens me and excites me and hurts my head and makes me useless, but there are so many things I do these days that I won’t be able to do in ten years. There are so many choices I could make that won’t be reasonable options when I’m thirty-two. It seems ungrateful not to bite off as much of life as is possible. Accept the invitation; apply for the job; reply to the text; flirt with the bartender (when applicable); be good to yourself. I don’t often need persuading of the fact, but I’m glad Graduates In Wonderland is here to remind me, when I need it.

3 thoughts on “Graduates In Wonderland, by Jessica Pan and Rachel Kapelke-Dale

  1. Yeah, you’re not the weird one. As a recent graduate, I’m constantly thinking of money and that I need to make more of it. I have quite the expensive undergraduate degree but at a certain point I feel bad about taking more money from my parents. I’ve always thought everyone felt this way. Apparently I’m wrong.

    You make a good point about the rootlessness and the “mistakes afforded” when you’re in your twenties. Often, I hate it and wish I could fast forward to a stabler time in my life. But I’m grateful I made the bulk of my mistakes recently, in my early twenties.

    1. I’m glad you think so too. One of the things that makes me the most proud of my own life is being financially independent, and anything that threatens that is really scary for me. And yes, totally, sometimes I wish I could fast-forward too. I just want a peek! Just one! I want to know at least how this chapter ends, if not the whole story. But I think that getting a peek would probably change the outcome irrevocably. Like that scientific principle where you can’t observe a phenomenon without changing it. I just think that it’ll probably all work out.

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