The Trip to Echo Spring Book Summary and Study Guide

Detailed plot synopsis reviews of The Trip to Echo Spring

The Trip to Echo Spring explores what makes writers turn to alcohol by focusing on the lives of American greats F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, John Berryman, Raymond Carver, John Cheever, and Tennessee Williams. The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking is an unflinching account of six of America's greatest writers' struggles with alcoholism. Olivia Laing, the books author, examines the lives of literary titans F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, John Berryman, Tennessee Williams, John Cheever, and Raymond Carver to discover what it was that drove them to drink. Laing intertwines her own experiences dealing with alcoholism in her family as a young girl while traveling across the United States to locations that held significance to the authors she focuses on. Laing also defines what alcoholism is, and how it has been treated throughout the years, to add some context to the story.
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Laing dedicates a large portion of her book discussing F. Scott Fitzgerald, arguably the great American author. Fitzgerald was born to parents who had recently lost both of their children to illness, thus cementing a theme of tragedy in his life. He served in World War I and married Zelda Fitzgerald, another tortured soul. Their relationship is legendary for its dysfunction, and served as yet another incentive for him to drink his troubles away. He and Zelda flocked to Paris where he met a young Ernest Hemingway. The legendary scribes bonded over booze for years until they had a falling out soon before Fitzgerald's untimely death. While he was the first of the writers profiled to pass away, Fitzgerald's own struggles with drink as well as his unfortunate spiral undeniably echoes throughout the other author's stories.

Like Fitzgerald and Hemingway, John Cheever and Raymond Carver were boozing buddies throughout their professorships at the prestigious Iowa Writer's Workshop. Cheever watched his father spiral helplessly into poverty and alcoholism, resulting in a deep insecurity concerning his upbringing. He struggled to appear as though he was the clean-cut Ivy-educated intellectual, even though he struggled to make ends meet for a large portion of his life. Unlike the other men Laing focuses on, however, Cheever never drank again following an extended period of illness in 1977. He experienced his greatest successes in the last few years of his life, in fact--a rarity, especially among writers suffering from alcoholism.

Suicide also plays a large role in the lives of Hemingway and John Berryman, both of whom eventually took their own lives. Hemingway was undoubtably shaken by the suicide of his father and his experiences during World War I, which influenced his alcohol intake just as much as his writing. While he was an adventurer, traveling to Paris, Key West, and Cuba, he was haunted by his past to such a degree that he shot himself in the head, the same way his father took his life, in 1961. John Berryman's father also took his own life when he was twelve years old, which haunted Berryman for his entire life and likely caused his alcoholism. He also killed himself in 1971 by jumping off a bridge.

All of the men Laing focuses on struggled with skeletons in the closet which drove them to drink. For Tennessee Williams, it was his homosexuality, which for much of his life had to be concealed, that likely caused him to turn to alcohol. His childhood also left many scars, as his father was absent (and also an alcoholic), and his mother struggled with mental illness. Following the successes of his early career, Williams began a longterm relationship with Frank Merlo, one that ended tragically when Merlo succumbed to cancer. Williams never fully recovered, and he fell deeper and deeper into an alcohol stupor before his death in 1983.

Laing proposes that there were many commonalities tying these men together, who came from various backgrounds and time periods, that drove them to drink. She believes the association between liquid and purification is what causes many writers to drink as well. Through all of the affairs, deaths, suicides, divorces, and various tragedies, these gifted men all sought alcohol to forget--to temporarily begin again. However, the effects were extremely damaging and more often than not cost these literary fixtures their lives.
Best part of story, including ending: I liked how thorough the research was and how the author's thesis seemed to draw a logical and realistic conclusion to the question posed at the start of the book.

Best scene in story: I enjoyed reading about the details of each man's life and discovering what it was that drove them to alcohol. It was interesting to see connections such as Hemingway and Berryman's fathers both committed suicide, and they ultimately did as well.

Opinion about the main character: I disliked the self destructing tendencies that all of the men displayed throughout their lives. Each of them was incredibly talented yet they tortured themselves by drinking. It was sad to see so much pain and mental illness go untreated in many cases.

The review of this Book prepared by Julianne Branda a Level 1 Blue Jay scholar

Chapter Analysis of The Trip to Echo Spring

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Plot & Themes

job/profession:    -   writer Job/profession/poverty story    -   Yes Phys disability/mental struggle?    -   Yes Struggle with    -   alcohol

Subject of Biography

Gender    -   Male Profession/status:    -   writer Ethnicity    -   White Nationality    -   American Unusual characteristics:    -   Mentally Ill


United States    -   Yes Century:    -   1930's-1950's

Writing Style

Book makes you feel?    -   challenged Pictures/Illustrations?    -   A few 1-5 B&W How much dialogue in bio?    -   significantly more descript than dialog How much of bio focuses on most famous period of life?    -   26-50% of book

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