debut finds ‘Order’ in youthful chaos

Rating: Three Stars out of Four

By Kelly Lawler

Wreck and Order, the incisive debut novel from Hannah Tennant-Moore (Hogarth, 290 pp), takes a young woman on a journey around the world, from small-town California to Paris to New York to Sri Lanka. It’s full of failed relationships, epiphanies and what can only be termed “finding oneself,” to the point where you may be tempted to call it the Millennial Eat, Pray, Love. But that comparison underserves both stories.

Wreck and Order will make even the messiest 20-something feel her life is together in comparison. Tennant-Moore crafts a realistically flawed, and often distinctly unlikable protagonist in Elsie, the globe-trotting young woman at the center of this novel. Constantly disgusted and angry about the problems in the world (torture, racism, etc.), Elsie struggles with how to “just be a decent person.” Unfortunately she is often so wracked with grief over injustices that she's left paralyzed.

Supported by a rich and tolerant father, Elsie starts her adult life by skipping college and heading off on her own, traveling from place to place until the money starts to run out. Her cash-flow problems are one reason she settles in a small town in California. The other is the allure of small-time drug dealer Jared, with whom Elsie falls into an emotionally abusive relationship.

Trying to escape Jared and the rest of her mildly depressing life (she briefly holds down a job editing obituaries for a local paper), Elsie buys a ticket to Sri Lanka and heads off on her Eastern adventure. Here the novel walks a fine line between its desire to take its character on a journey and the trope of white characters trying to find themselves through the literal and figurative color of exotic lands.

To her credit, Tennant-Moore does not allow Elsie to be transformed by her experience. The world of Sri Lanka does not exist only to serve Elsie’s story. She is, though, able to look at her life with more clarity. “I felt I could handle the wrong choices now, that I could live the old life in a new way,” she says.

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