Book review: In ‘The Canterbury Sisters,’ women share their stories on trek in England

Ben Steelman StarNews Media

It’s November, not April, when a group of American pilgrims set out to trace the route of Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales.” Still, in Charlotte author Kim Wright’s “The Canterbury Sisters,” a lot of tales are spun, and a lot of dirt is dished.

Gallery Books clearly expects this novel to hit the chick-lit bull’s-eye. It’s even added an appendix of discussion questions for book clubs.

Once again, Wright (“The Unexpected Waltz”) focuses on a middle-aged, suddenly single heroine. Wine critic Che de Marin has just lost her mother, a hardcore hippie from the Summer of Love. (Yes, she named her daughter after the Cuban guy.)

Almost simultaneously, Che’s dumped — via mail — by her long-distance boyfriend, the one she was hoping was The One.

Now, pushing 50 — “too old to start over and too young to die” — Che impulsively decides to fulfill her mom’s dying wish, to have her ashes scattered at Canterbury

Cathedral in England.

She signs on with a group called “Broads Abroad,” a gaggle of tourists, all women, and most of them as old as Che or older. (One sullen teenage daughter is being dragged along.) Under a perky English guide, the group is going to re-create the route of Geoffrey Chaucer’s pilgrims, walking more or less 60 miles from London to Canterbury while avoiding as many motorways and malls as possible.

You guessed it. Along the way, the women tell stories. There’s even a contest, as in “The Canterbury Tales,” with a dinner at a fancy restaurant as the prize.

Most are autobiographical, but some aren’t. Angelique, the New Jersey mob wife from a certain TV reality show, “with enough makeup for 10 women,” surprises everyone by retelling the Greek myth of

Cupid and Psyche. (It proves surprisingly apt for reality TV.)

Another pilgrim delivers an updated, feminist version of the tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (well, here, a Black Knight), as told by the Wife of Bath. (Like her, another pilgrim, Claire, has been married four times — and hasn’t slowed down yet.)

Most, however, give versions of their life stories. (Warning: Not all the narrators are entirely reliable.) Certain themes emerge: Men are seldom reliable, and then they die (or develop Alzheimer’s). Most women wind up living out a fairy tale, although usually not the kind with happily ever after.

And, along the way, a kind of sisterhood emerges. Women who seem unpleasant at first show their scars (sometimes literally) and their strong, appealing sides.

This might have been as New-Age-y as anything from Momma de Marin’s commune. The saving grace, however, is Che’s wry, black-humored, seen-it-all commentary. Example: “Restaurants are the churches of my generation. These are the places where we congregate to confess our sins, drink wine, search for glimmers of hope and, most important, find community – or at least a momentary sanctuary from our loneliness.”

Che de Marin is a terrific traveling companion for more than 300 pages.

Contact (Wilmington, N.C.) StarNews columnist Ben Steelman at 910-343-2208, or follow him on Twitter at @BenSteelmanSN.