Graduates in Wonderland/Jessica Pan and Rachel Kapelke-Dale: Reflections

Friday, January 17, 2014

Common Knowledge: Beth Kephart loves her University of Pennsylvania memoir students, even the ones who drive her a little crazy at first with their wild tales and late assignments. We're working on the truth here, I tell them, eyebrows sternly bent, and eventually they settle down, they stretch their sentences, they find the story of their still unfolding lives.

It was with great pleasure, then, that I read Graduates in Wonderland: True Dispatches from Down the Rabbit Hole (Gotham Books), a book that you'll be able to buy (you'll want to buy) come May. Its authors are Jessica Pan and Rachel Kapelke-Dale, two friends who met at Brown, graduated to adventures in Beijing and Australia (that would be Jessica), Chelsea and Paris (that would be Rachel), and never lost sight of each other. They are wandering and wondering. They are underemployed and richly challenged. They are ashamed, surprised, delighted, hoping, never precisely sure, but then again, perhaps (at last) they are sure—at least of some things. They are growing up, that's what they are. And in Graduates in Wonderland, we watch it happen.

We watch it happen charmed.

Back and forth, the two friends write. Rachel of a bad boss, a demanding shrink, an apartment built for one and inhabited by three, dreams of Paris, dreams in Paris, the study of cinematography and the making of a novel. Jess of her ex-pat life in Beijing, of a magazine she edits, of wrong guys, of a right guy, of a preemptive almost honeymoon in Malaysia, of Australia where she settles (for a short while) to be closer to Mr. Right. Mistakes get made. Questions aren't answered. So much in this life, in this world, is flimsy, but not this friendship.

Rachel and Jess have done an extraordinary job, in the creation of this book, of turning an epistolary life story into something richly tender, and genuinely suspenseful. We read to know them. We also read to find out what happens. The intimacy here, is not just between the writers, but with the readers. There's a blessed absence of unparsable inside jokes. This is no aggressive staging of scenes for dramatic effect. There is zero sense that the living is getting done for the sake of a book sometime later. In Graduates in Wonderland, we find  two smart girls casting wide nets and reporting back from the front. Two smart—and funny—young women who love each other, root for each other, advise each other, miss each other, need each other, wouldn't be who they are without each other.

Here is Jess, writing to Rachel, who is keen to hear back regarding an application to the Sorbonne:
Don't rest all of your life expectations on one outcome. When you have no expectations, you don't lose all that money on wasted ribbons and polo shirts. I flew to Beijing without knowing a thing about what to expect or what to bring. Granted, I also had to live without deodorant and the correct prescription contact lenses for two months, but I survived. And so will you! Even if you don't get into your program, there will always be other ways to get to Paris and other ways to change your life.
I'm an old lady now, and one of my greatest life regrets is that I always lived so responsibly, so attuned to what was expected of me and what I might be able to do for others, what job I might do and how best I might do it, that I forsook adventure. But I've adventured forth now with Jess and Rachel, and I have returned with a warm, good feeling in my heart. I have showered over a toilet (or almost) and had my share of almond croissants and gone to Melbourne, where I mispronounce the city's name. I have had to decide, and I have decided, and I have made it to London, just in time.


  © Blogger templates Newspaper II by 2008

Back to TOP