I initially thought Riley's novel was great with its beautiful images of the City of Barcelona: cobbled streets and outdoor cafes, the rarified atmosphere of the city that edges the Mediterranean. Whitney's zest for life is perhaps as impressive as Will, Riley using the couple to explore his views of love and sex. Will and Whitney coexist on the edge. They've been together for seven years, and they've shared spaced, lived apart and traveled long distances to be with one another for a night. Still, this Barcelona trip is going to prove a reckoning for them both.
The current restraint in their relationship has prompted each of them to draw for one another to find several warm hours and construct a metaphorical map of their separate lives. From their wild mutual sexual fantasies to their collection of one-night stands, Whitney confides that she knows Will and trusts him: "I know you didn't do anything intentionally hurtful."
When the Icelandic volcano strands them, its ash tumbling out tirelessly for days, drifting farther on atmospheric currents, the couple's flight is cancelled. Unable to get a status on when it will be flying again, the two pack as quickly as they can. When they get to the international terminal, they discover travelers already stacked up hundreds-deep at the desks. Thus starts Will and Whitney's journey through a shrouded city. Are they ever going to get back to New York? Riley seems to say that his couple will survive it, just like everything else.
As the narrative unfolds in a series of stream-of-consciousness confessionals, I found myself increasingly irritated at Will and Whitney's constant self-absorption. Will admits that he has been rough with Whitney. On a 15-minute walk to a party in the vicinity of La Sagrada Familia, the couple meet a handsome American athlete who is equal parts insecure and famous. Jack "JJ" Pickle and Californian student Jenna Leonard will force Will and Whitney to an accounting. In the exhaustion of a transatlantic redeye, the grime in Will's stubble and the slime in Whitney's pores, the burning red of a cloudy sun seems to "sap the liquid from their eyes."
Whitney has an unquestioning devotion to Will, a boy who knows he had been blessed from the beginning. Will comes off as an overgrown, egotistical child. It is puzzling that Jenna continues to seek his approval. Behind the confessional about her life in Paris, where she rediscovered art, to the indifferent volcano that doesn't care about JJ's basketball career or the loss that "twisted him up," the volcano seethes, ignoring their "inconsequential human concerns." Will and Whitney acknowledge that in the face of the volcano and geologic scale, none of it none of them matter "one smidge."
A plodding narrative eventually leads into predictability, an exotic smoke-drenched environment of travelers thrust together through no fault of their own. I found Whitney and Will pretentious in their sexual lives, their career choices, their inner torment and the sheer drama of their soul-searching. Perhaps it's a generational thing. It may be that I'm far too old now to really appreciate Riley's world.