Now that the journey to publication is a few months behind me, I’ve had more of a chance to look back on the experience of writing The Art Trip. Recently, I’ve been reflecting more on the themes from the novel – what led me to create that story in particular, what lay beneath those characters, events and settings – what I was really writing about, if you like.
That’s important for me because as I get into the business of drafting my second novel, I’m interested to decipher if I’m addressing new themes or returning to any which begin to feel intrinsic to me as an author. Of course, in crafting my next story, I’ll be led by my characters; they’re already quite clear in my mind, and I’m excited to see where they take me. If there are themes or messages below the story’s surface, though, I’d like to be sure to weave them in properly, to ensure I convey them to readers, and maybe a little reflection will help there.
So, here’s my review of themes in The Art Trip. Now, it’s a romantic comedy, so I don’t think I’ll be giving away too much by saying there’s a relationship involved! There aren’t any other plot reveals here though, so if you want to go on and read the novel I won’t have spoiled your enjoyment. Of course, if you do take a look at the book, I’d love to hear what you think too!
Renaissance & Reinvention
Most stories see their protagonists transformed in some way, and in basing The Art Trip around a trip to Rome and Florence, I was conscious that these wonderful cities would make a fitting backdrop to the reinvention of my own leading characters, Beverley, Ken and Jessica. The idea of a school trip attracted me, too, because it’s intentionally a transformative experience, a journey of learning, taken at a pivotal time in life. So many groups of students visit Italy, wondering at the famous sights and undergoing their own metamorphoses.
Similarly, so many great characters in literature have visited Italy and undergone a reinvention – from E.M. Forster’s naive Lucy Honeychurch to Patricia Highsmith’s edgy Tom Ripley – tapping into the country’s cultural legacy as the cradle of the Renaissance. I can’t pretend that my own creations come anywhere close to these, the characters of some my own favourite writers, but in a small way, I wanted to pay homage to those Italian reinvention stories I’ve enjoyed so much.
Of course, it’s Italy’s cultural legacy, the art and history of the Renaissance, which Beverley and Ken are teaching, and which Jessica and the other students are absorbing, as they undergo their own reinvention. The trip, an intense experience, far away from their homes and habits, is the perfect catalyst for both adults and students to change, and the art of the Renaissance provides some of the inspirational fuel for their transformation.
Art & Self-Expression
Naturally, art has a significant role to play in The Art Trip, and as a lover of art myself, it was one of the themes I most enjoyed weaving into the novel. Engaging with art, whether by teaching, studying or creating it, is one of the central experiences connecting all the characters on the trip, and it’s one which helps them to connect with each other too.
Whether exhilarated by Michelangelo’s soaring St Peter’s basilica, spellbound by Botticelli’s Primavera, or moved to create their own sketches, art is one force that helps the characters to access their emotions and express themselves, and in that way, it acts as an important catalyst within the story.
For shy student Jessica, learning to appreciate art and feel a response to it is a step towards her own emotional development, which continues as she begins her own tentative attempts at sketching. Feelings she isn’t able to express in words spill out instead through her creations. The confidence she finds through creativity better equips her to navigate other challenges.
Meanwhile, Ken’s enthusiasm for his subject, and his commitment to helping his students understand and appreciate art serve to open Beverley’s eyes to his admirable qualities. Whilst they have very different outlooks on life and on teaching, she can’t deny the impact his passion has on his students, and she can’t help but be swept along by it to some extent herself.
Youth & Experience
Having settled on the idea of a school trip to Italy, I found myself equally drawn to the idea of a potential romance between teachers Beverley and Ken, and the coming of age of shy teenager Jessica. In the end, rather than choose which should be the focus, I decided to weave both into The Art Trip. It may have made the challenge of writing the novel more difficult, but I hope it brings an extra depth and enjoyment for the reader, to see how the trip and the themes of the novel appear from these contrasting perspectives of youth and experience.
It seemed the right approach to me, because in some ways, I felt the two story-lines mirrored each other; as Jessica’s experiences on the trip lead her to grow up and grow more confident, Beverley and Ken are changed by the trip and grow softer, even younger, in a way. Whilst for Jessica and the teenagers, beginning to learn about love is part of the path to growing up, for Beverley and Ken to connect they must shed the rigid and slightly tough shells they’ve acquired through the various disappointments of life, and their previous relationships.
I liked this mirroring too, because I felt it said something about the universality of love, the way it fascinates and affects us at different times in our lives, in different ways. Whether we’re young and naive or older and supposedly wiser, it can overtake and change us, helping us to grow and learn – which brings me onto the next theme.
Learning & Inspiration
By the end of The Art Trip, each of the leading characters has undergone a transformation, changed by their experiences in Italy, and by the experience of being thrown together as a group. Of course, the objective of a school trip is learning, but I was rather intrigued and amused by the idea that on this trip, the teachers might learn more than their students! Certainly, thinking about life lessons and lessons in love, it’s hard to say who’s learned more.
Jessica and her fellow students have clearly learned a good deal about the art and history of Italy, as evidenced in their increasingly sophisticated questions to their teachers, and their cultured discussions with each other. More than this, though, they have learned to cast aside some of the cliques and conventions of school and forge new, sounder friendships based on shared experiences and passions. Jessica blossoms during the trip, overcoming insecurities and mishaps to emerge with newfound self-confidence, a sense of direction and ambition.
Beverley and Ken, likewise, have learned to cast aside their grudges and staff-room rivalry to appreciate the talents and virtues of the other, and further, to see how they might, in fact, be complementary to each other. They have very different character traits, and many different values, but eventually, their clashes and misunderstandings act to wear away some of their sharp edges, leaving them with a mutual respect, which becomes admiration, then more.
Love Ideal & Real
Love is so often idealized, especially in culture. So much literature, art and music tells of the all-consuming agony and ecstasy of this fascinating, magical force. In contrast to that, though, the everyday experience of love and relationships is so often about understanding, kindness and compromise. Perfect little moments of romance happen, if we’re fortunate, but they’re scattered among many more everyday occurrences, be they mundane, disappointing or downright ridiculous!
In The Art Trip’s two story-lines, I wanted to play with this contrast between the ideal and real manifestations of love. Teenager Jessica struggles to understand and reconcile the two, torn between the idealized crush she has nurtured for Mr Thomas, in contrast to the real, and well-intentioned but clumsy attentions of boys her own age. Beverley and Ken, meanwhile, struggle with their own prejudices and awkwardness as their attraction to each other develops. Set against the romantic backdrops of Rome and Florence, immersed in art and culture celebrating love, they’re hampered by their own skepticism and self-consciousness, feeling foolish, aware of how far short of romantic ideals they themselves fall.
In the end, of course, Beverley, Ken and Jessica each find their way to a better understanding of love. For Jessica that means a better grasp on her own feelings, and a more developed sense of what love is and isn’t as she continues her journey towards adulthood. For Beverley and Ken, it’s a re-opening of their hearts, a recognition that however faltering and inept their own journey towards love has been, the goal remains something warm and wonderful. Ultimately, I hope The Art Trip closes with this message, that despite its stumbling course, it’s humble everyday love and not dramatic idealized love which is the real thing.