When I was 22, Taylor Swift was too. Her song “22”, was blasted on the radio, and I’d sing along, because it was catchy, and to me a bit satirical. It didn’t depict my experiences, or reality for that matter. It wasn’t a mantra I identified with anymore than I identified with Taylor Swift herself. At first, that’s how I felt about Allison Trowbridge’s book, Twenty-Two: Letters to a Young Woman Searching for Meaning. While the book isn’t written to a 22 year-old specifically, Twenty-Two represents the number of letters the author wrote to a fictional character. The author’s intent was to write a book that represents to her a resource she wished she had when she was a young woman at the precipice of adulthood. I’ve often felt that way. But the girl that Allison Trowbridge is writing to just wasn’t me, or so I thought.
Beyond getting back into the headspace of my 18, 19, 20 year-old self, the way the book is structured made it difficult to connect at first. The book is laid out in letters to a fictional character. Allison Trowbridge uses the letter format as a vehicle to make her advice easily digestible. She packs in a lot of topics into bursts of prose, which feels choppy at times. The book is broken into four parts, with each part representing a year of college: Freshman, Sophomore Junior, and Senior. And each letter surrounds a specific theme, college, body image, boys, career paths and so on. At the beginning, the topics are light hearted, the things you’d expect to be discussed between a freshman in college and her mentor.
Through the first part of the book, I couldn’t help but feel like we were just skimming the surface. I was left wanting more, and thinking that this was a book my 18-year-old self would have turned her nose up to and close without ever finishing it. Which is a shame. There are beautiful pieces of writing in here. Her tone is poetic, though it does teeters on a saccharine edge more often than not. At times, the letters felt like a letter from Jane Bennet to Elizabeth Bennet, rather than a modern letter to a modern girl. Even then it was missing the layered wit and bite and societal reflection of Jane Austen’s brilliance.
My biggest hitch to get over was the fact that the letters are written to a fictional character, Ashley, referred to as Ash. At times, I was more than aware that these letters weren’t written to me. Writing to Ash, the named fictional character receiving these letters, and Allison’s responses, made it difficult to insert myself into. Whenever Ash was mentioned, I found myself being pulled out of the book. Thus, the intent to connect through their relationship was lost on me.
Overall, it made it difficult to relate. I was viewing their relationship through a window rather than being invited into the narrative, which separated myself from the author’s intent. I would have preferred an author-to-reader relationship, rather than a fabricated mentor-to-fictional-girl relationship. The whole structure made the author’s experience and wisdom feel forced and a little fake at times. The tags at the end of the letters to stoke an authentic feel felt like meaningless fluff. For me, the personal touch missed the mark and came off as hokey.
I have to say though, that beneath the ruffled verses are nuggets of wisdom worth diving into. You just have to wade through the fluff to find them. As the book progresses through the years of college, there is a maturity that takes place. The topics become more serious as Allison wades out into deeper waters, beckoning you to join her. She does not shy away from talking about lesser discussed topics like rape, genocide, and cancer.
The first letter of part II hooked me and kept me reading, and it only got better from there. If it weren’t for that chapter, I don’t know if I would have had the intrigue to give the book another chance. From there, Allison Trowbridge guides you as she pours out her life’s journey. Faith is an integral part throughout the book. God is interwoven within the narrative, and Allison views each of her subjects through a Christ infused lens.
Not everyone has access to a mentor or the means and knowhow to seek one out. This book can help fill the gap. And while I didn’t agree with her 100% of the time and found myself eye-rolling at some of her advice, her personal testimony is worth it alone. Her sincerity is apparent as she pulls back the layers of life until you’re staring at the deepest parts of the soul.
I do wonder what 18-year-old Lizzy would have thought of the ending to this book. It certainly came out of the blue, and I won’t spoil that for you. 26 year-old Lizzy is conflicted about it. There’s a point where it felt like I was reading a John Greene novel. But this book is not “The Fault in Our Stars,” and gladly so. I do have to say, if you enjoy John Greene, I’d bet my bottom dollar that you’d more than love reading Twenty-Two: Letters to a Young Woman Searching for Meaning, too.