Title: When Life Was Like a Cucumber
Author: Greg Wyss
Genre: Historical fiction
When Life Was Like a Cucumber centers Jeff, a twenty-four-year-old recent college graduate with no idea what he wants to do with his life. With his college years spent in the late 60s where he was heavily involved in the antiwar movement, Jeff becomes hardened to the idea of viewing the U.S. as “home.” To compensate, he jumps from house to house, friendship to friendship, sexual partner to sexual partner. When Jeff realizes that he wants more from life, he sets out on a series of travels in search of purpose and meaning in his life, only to find himself more lost than ever.
At 600 pages, the novel’s length may seem daunting, but its short chapters make it an easy read. With quick chapters, the novel’s pace never staggers and they mimic the flashes of memories that Jeff reminisces and reflects on.
One of the highlights of the novel is how well the time period is conveyed. From the novel’s first page, the environment, music, and dialogue make readers feel like they are immersed in the early 70s era.
Jeff’s travels begin in upstate New York and along the East Coast until he decides to journey across the pond in hopes of fulfilling his wanderlust dreams in Europe. With an abundance of new people, places, and experiences that Jeff encounters on his road trips and hitch-hiking trips, the narrative stays fresh and engaging throughout.
Nearly half the novel is spent in NY or other parts of the East coast where readers grow to love Jeff’s roommates, friends, and lovers. Jeff’s trip to Europe, however, is a bit of a rocky transition for readers. Like Jeff, readers are thrust into a new environment with the shift in setting and the story feels almost like an entirely new book.
Though an impressive writing technique, emotionally it’s a bit unsatisfying to abandon the characters we’ve developed such strong connections to. By the end of the novel, we wish there was more closure with some of the previous characters that Jeff once knew as his friends.
Readers of all ages will find Jeff’s search for a higher meaning in life emotional and relatable. There are many tender moments that will leave readers hurt from Jeff’s yearning for peace and connection.
Additionally, the inclusion of American politics at the time lends a timely, relevant message of how distrust and divide within the government can make people feel like strangers in their own country.
Another one of the main plots centers Jeff’s sexual awakening which turns into an addiction and obsession to feel something. With the many sexually explicit scenes and adult content, this book is best suited for a mature audience.
The novel’s ending feels a bit unfinished. Though realistic, explicit closure and clarity surrounding some of the characters, who the readers have dedicated so much time connecting with, would have been more satisfying and fulfilling.
In When Life Was Like a Cucumber, Wyss creates a completely transportive setting filled with smoking grass, drug trips, music festivals, and road trips. Readers of all ages will enjoy this nostalgic coming-of-age story set during a time of free love, hippies, and political division. Emotional and deep, this journey to find a higher calling shows us that we can run, but we can’t hide from our pain forever.
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