The Art of Vanishing: A Memoir of Wanderlust by Laura Smith combines the story of the disappearance of American author Barbara Newhall Follett with Laura Smith’s own story of wanting both freedom and her marriage. The story of Barbara Newhall Follett is fascinating and left me searching for more information about her writings, life and disappearance. Laura Smith’s own story is interesting too, but is also a reminder of what can go wrong when a person acts on their discontent. I also felt as if the author was less than honest about the reasons for her actions in this memoir.
The story of Barbara Newhall Follett was new to me. Born in 1914, Barbara was a child prodigy who published her first novel at the age of 11, then, with her parent’s blessing, enlisted to work as a boat hand at the age of 15 where she travelled to the south China seas. Later Barbara became one of the first women to hike the Appalachian Trail. She married the man she hiked with, but later, when they had settled in to a more ordinary life, he fell in love with someone else. She disappeared soon after, at the age of 25.
Barbara Newhall Follett’s story was made more interesting because of the parallels between her own disappearance and plot of the book she wrote as a child, The House Without Windows, where the main character’s greatest wish was to live a life unrestrained by the people who loved her.
Laura Smith’s own story is of a woman who doubts if marriage is for her, but goes ahead and does it anyway. In the early days of their marriage she and her husband lived abroad, enjoying exotic adventures in far off countries in place of the smothering affection of their friends and family in their lives in America, but things become more complicated when they returned to America and seeking adventure, decided to try an open marriage.
Up until this point the author had constantly stressed how happy her marriage was and how content she and her husband were in each other’s company, which made me wonder why, if this were the case, that they would want to complicate things. Their subsequent romantic and sexual experiments with other partners turned out about as well as you would have expected, regardless of the author stressing that her perceived loss of freedom within her marriage was what was making her unhappy. It really irked me that she did not acknowledge they risked their marriage because of a self-created discontent. Perhaps she herself did not recognise this.
I don’t think the similarities with the author’s memoirs were strong enough to have combined them with the life and disappearance of Barbara Newhall Follett, however I’m glad to have read this book because Barbara Newhall Follett is an extraordinary subject. If I can find any of her fiction I’ll be very glad to read it.