I loved this book and I'm afraid this review won't do it justice. Virginia (Ginny) is a good kid. She doesn't get into trouble, she gets good grades, and she follows the rules. Yes, she knows that she is shy, even with her aunt Peg (who she loves wholeheartedly), but she's okay with that. When her aunt Peg dies and leaves her a stack of envelopes with travel instructions, Ginny reluctantly begins following the path they describe.
I thought I'd have a harder time with Ginny than I actually did. She's pretty passive and that always bugs me. And I thought I'd have a harder time with Aunt Peg than I actually did. She's pretty aggressive and that always bugs me. Fortunately, Maureen Johnson doesn't take any of the easy paths or settle for obvious "lessons" with her characters so what we end up with is a rich exploration of growth, friendship, relationships, and family with just the right pacing of events to move the story along.
One of the strengths of the book is that Johnson didn't deify Aunt Peg the way that books like this seem tempted to do. She wasn't some genius artistic mastermind engineering the education and betterment of her niece. Her plan has flaws, some obvious, some subtle, and part of Ginny's journey is coming to terms with the flawed human being her Aunt turns out to be.
Another strength of the book is that Ginny doesn't learn all the obvious lessons from her journey, either. Ginny needs to learn to be comfortable with herself, to have confidence, and to be open to meeting new people. Being a smart girl, she knows this and is prepared to follow-through on Aunt Peg's crazy pilgrimage. But the things Ginny experiences aren't as clear-cut as all that. Some of exploring your world ends up reinforcing your preconceived notions rather than abating them and sometimes the lessons Ginny learns aren't even close to what Aunt Peg intended.
And I really liked the two men who end up dominating Ginny's experiences—one introduced directly by Aunt Peg's instructions and the other a happy accident. No, this is not a romantic triangle and for that I am deeply grateful. Richard is my favorite (he's the not-love-interest). He is reliable and honest and grieving the passing of Aunt Peg in his own way. Fortunately, his grief is the unselfish kind that turns his attentions to helping Ginny any way that he can. He was endearing and drew me into the novel, particularly at the end.
I really can't say more without ruining key aspects of the book. If you have a heart and wouldn't mind exploring growth, friendship, relationships, and family, this book is a good place to do so.