Sisters Hanna, Megan, and Claire have just waved off their parents at the airport in Halifax when Hanna announces her plan: while Mum and Dad are in Europe, the three of them are going on a cross-Canada road trip. No reason is given, and party-pooper Megan is the only one to offer mild – and promptly dismissed – protestation. Four pages in, the girls embark on the journey of a lifetime.
Except, alas, it’s not. To be sure, veteran author Sylvia Gunnery includes many ingredients for a classic coming-of-age drama: Hanna is haunted by a scandal that cut short her stint as an au pair in Italy, while Claire is dealing with grief and guilt over a friend’s suicide. Megan is moody and beautiful, and … well, that’s pretty much it. Although their teenage bickering and shifting allegiances are well observed, as individuals the three siblings remain underdeveloped sketches rather than deeply explored characters.
The plot races along at a breathless pace, skimming across potentially revealing interactions so quickly that it’s easy to forget what a vast country they’re traversing. The girls check in and out of hostels, hit a concert, go to the hospital, and join a wedding with folks they meet at a campground. Supporting characters are summarily introduced and dropped, never to be mentioned again.
One exception is Bear, a 19-year-old Ojibway hitchhiker travelling to Pinawa, Manitoba. The girls stay there with him and his kindly, chain-smoking Aunt Norma and depressed Uncle Edgar for a few days. Bear’s cousin, Lenny, is fighting in Afghanistan, and Edgar’s creepy co-worker, Lloyd, is hanging around more than he should. If the tension and nuance introduced in these scenes had been spread throughout the novel, Road Signs That Say West could have been a rewarding read.
We never do find out where Hanna’s getting the money to cover gas, food, and a trip to the Vancouver Aquarium. More importantly, none of the sisters evolve in any significant way. Gunnery touches on some tough issues and populates her story with characters full of potential. Unfortunately, in the haste to reach their destination, the journey doesn’t leave enough room to breathe.