3 out of 4 stars
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Man Mission: Four Men, Fifteen Years, One Epic Journey by Eytan Uliel follows the life of four friends after college. Every year these friends agree to go on an exotic vacation where they undertake physically demanding activities, trek rough terrains and eat bizarre (sometimes questionable) dishes. Over the course of fifteen years, these friends fall in and out of love, start families and switch careers. The only consistent element to their lives is their annual Man Mission, a trip to help them escape the stifling structure of everyday life.
However, the Man Missions are not without there rules.
1.) Each Man Mission must include physically intensive activities.
2.) During each Man Mission the friends must travel “under their own power” i.e. biking, hiking and kayaking.
3.) No complaining is allowed during the trip.
4.) No girlfriends or wives are allowed to join any Man Missions.
While the Man Missions appear to be the focal point of the book, it is what transpires between these trips that leads to the growth and development of each character. The characters expend little effort to feel like “real men” while biking through the jungles of Vietnam or kayaking through the waters of Fiji, but it is more trying to maintain that enthusiasm in the world of spreadsheets, desks and office spaces. As the friends struggle to preserve their masculinity in a society poised to see them fail, they learn more about themselves and what it really means to be men.
In this novel, Uliel combines fiction with travel writing. In fact, the travel literature style of writing is what I enjoyed the most about the piece. Even if I had not read Eytan Uliel’s bio, I would still be able to tell that he was well-traveled. The descriptions of the scenery, the food and the specific cultural peculiarities betray Uliel’s experiences. The sections dedicated to these trips appear to have been written with the most ease which made the experiences seem more authentic. The Man Missions were the most engaging parts of the novel and were what predominately held my interest.
Similarly, the characters in the book come alive during the Man Missions which made these sections more enjoyable to read. Uliel creates a familiar character chemistry between the friends which makes the dialogue realistic and helps the characters to come alive. I found myself more invested in the characters’ successes and failures. These portions continually revived my interest in the book.
In contrast, the narrative arc is what I disliked the most about Man Mission . The novel is separated into three parts and it is not until the third, that the motif of the novel is really addressed. Because the first two parts only hinted at the intended message, it was difficult to conjure the motivation to continue reading. In addition, the portions of the book relating to the narrator’s family life paled in comparison to the legitimacy of the travel descriptions mentioned above. The relationship between the narrator and his wife felt cliché as did the character interactions between the narrator and his friends. While I found the interpersonal scenes between the friends tired and banal, I later interpreted them as an intentional choice by Uliel to highlight the stereotypes of masculinity in our society. Still, the relationship between the narrator and his wife (while realistic) is one that is unfortunately predictable and boring to read. They have a first sight love that is all admiration and infatuation until it begins to sour. The narrator’s family life is set up as a significant aspect adding to the character’s discontent, but this conflict is merely brushed upon. The lack of development made it feel insignificant.
Despite the choices mentioned above, I would still give Man Mission: Four Men, Fifteen Years, One Epic Journey 3 out of 4 stars. The mediocrity which I sensed in certain aspects of the piece does not overshadow the travel descriptions which I thoroughly enjoyed, and which continuously intrigued me to finish reading it. The frustration and boredom which I felt while reading the first two portions of the book dissolved during Part Three. It is in these chapters where the motive for writing the piece becomes clearer and the growth of the narrator becomes the most apparent. After finishing the novel, I was left questioning masculinity and the sometimes-archaic standards with which men are expected to meet. In addition, I found myself interested in learning more about how these stipulations can positively or negatively affect the men in our society. In this way, Man Mission reaches beyond its covers. That being said, because of the significant portions of the work that I did not enjoy reading, I could not give the piece a rating of 4 out of 4. I would recommend this novel to anyone who enjoys reading in-depth and realistic travel fiction as well as anyone interested in gender social culture.
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