Over three and a half years have passed since Betsy’s high school graduation, and she’s been at loose ends for some time. Early in her freshwoman year at the University of Minnesota, a bout of appendicitis interrupted her studies, and she went to her grandma in California to recover.
When she returned to school, she was overcome by depression at being a year behind her old friends. Though Betsy became actively involved in a sorority and the school newspaper, academia just didn’t agree with her. She also sort-of cheated on her almost-fiancé Joe, which led to their breakup.
Finally, Betsy confesses to her parents that she’s not getting much out of her education, something that’s been obvious to them for a long time. She only wants to write, and her parents feel a trip to Europe would provide wonderful inspiration and hands-on experience.
But the book doesn’t open with that. No, it opens as Betsy is preparing to board a ship sailing to Europe in January 1914. The story of the last three and a half years is told in a long backstory infodump in the second chapter. We also learn in this chapter that Mr. Kerr’s grooming and aggressive pursuit of Tacy was successful and that they’re now married.
Why couldn’t there have been a few books about Betsy’s university days, year in California, and split with Joe? These events have less emotional resonance because we’re told about them after the fact instead of experiencing them along with Betsy as they unfold.
The death of Tacy’s father merits a single line in this long infodump. There was a lot more time and care given to the death of a secondary character’s father in Betsy Was a Junior! How do you just gloss over such a huge event in the life of a main character?!
Anyway, Betsy has a grand time on the S.S. Columbic, making lots of new friends, enjoying dances and dinners, hobnobbing with society people, flirting with a much-older guy who turns out to have a wife and five kids, taking daytrips to a few islands and cities along the way to Naples. These first seven chapters were my favorite part of the book.
The first stop on Betsy’s itinerary is München (Munich), where she stays in a pension (i.e., a boardinghouse that provides meals) full of people from all over the world. She falls in love with the city, and makes several good friends.
During this time, Betsy also gets $100 for a story published in Ainslee’s magazine.
Betsy comes off really poorly during a daytrip to Sonneberg, the toy and doll capital of the world. Despite initial opposition, she manages to talk her way into touring a doll factory. After learning the doll heads are assembled in people’s houses, Betsy peeks in windows to see the process.
None of the children have any dolls of their own, which greatly puzzles Betsy. Shouldn’t they have their pick of the best dolls when they live in a city renowned for making them? But Betsy is reassured everything is peachy-keen when a little girl shows her a headless doll.
Betsy returns to the factory to buy a fancy doll she admired earlier, though she feels very silly walking through the streets with a doll in her arms at her age. She doesn’t give it to one of the children, but keeps it for herself.
She still shows no self-awareness when she decides to give the doll to Tacy’s potential daughter.
Another daytrip is to Oberammergau, which has been putting on Passion Plays since the 17th century. Betsy is enthralled by the town and how seriously people take their roles. If she’d stayed long enough to see the next play, I doubt she would’ve picked up on the blatant antisemitism built into this play until a major update in 1950.
Betsy then jaunts off to Venice, where she spends six weeks. During her stay, a young man named Marco falls in instalove with her.
Then it’s off to Switzerland and Paris, skimmed over in a chapter written by Mrs. Lovelace’s daughter Merian. So much of this book reads like a shallow travelogue instead of an actual novel!
During Betsy’s stay in London, where she happily acquires a group of friends called The Crew, war is declared. Though the events described are gripping, there’s never any real doubt Betsy will get a ticket for a ship home. She’s upper-middle-class and has many well-connected friends.
This book is the weakest in the series. Not just writing-wise, but in Betsy’s lack of emotional growth. She never goes off the beaten path in any of her travels, and reacts with naïveté and willful blindness when confronted with people who weren’t lucky enough to be born into the privilege she takes for granted. She develops zero perspective or class consciousness from seeing how the other half lives.
Betsy also never has to navigate her travels all by herself, as she always has multiple people looking out for her. And what 21-year-old goes around telling people about her pretend maid Celeste like she’s a real person?!
Betsy’s declaration of support for women’s suffrage also comes from out of left field. There was never so much as an indirect hint in any of the previous eight books she deeply cared about this issue!
At least this Grand Tour helps Betsy to realize she needs to try to make things right with Joe already, and the ending sets things up for the final book.