The Traces by Mairead Small Staid is a philosophical exploration of happiness in which the author interweaves musings by figures like Aristotle, Cesare Pavese, and Alain de Botton with her own. She turns her self–reflection outward onto the reader, making this debut memoir both revealing and introspective. Small Staid discusses place, longing, and memory, journeying back through her life–altering time as a student abroad in Florence, Italy where she spent idyllic days studying “poems and paintings below oaken ceilings” and "[drinking] espresso in a sunlit courtyard.”
Using Italo Calvino’s novel Invisible Cities as a guiding force throughout the memoir, Small Staid takes readers through her own travel abroad. Calvino’s 1972 literary work is composed of poetic and prose–filled conversations between emperor Kublai Khan and famed explorer Marco Polo as he ruminates on his journeys through fictitious cities. Small Staid not only quotes the book within her own memoir, but also borrows the novel’s table of contents by utilizing each of its 11 chapter titles, including “Cities & Memory,” “Cities & Names,” and more.
While The Traces contains enough romantic descriptions of Florence to make us want to drop everything and book a one–way ticket to Italy, it is more than a love letter to the city. Instead, in Small Staid’s personal reflection, location and emotion are inextricably linked. She touches briefly on her struggle with manic depression, describing it with a topographical metaphor. With prose that runs as freely as Italian wine, she considers that her place memories and opinions became wholly influenced by her mental state when visiting: “[H]appiness also became a place, a place I could visit, a place I wanted to live.”
Eudaimonics, “the art or theory of happiness,” occupies much of Small Staid’s attention in The Traces. As she grapples with her own happiness, both present and past, Small Staid uses the works of authors before her to situate her own struggle within a broader scholarly context. Citations of the works of Michel de Montaigne, Anne Carson, and Albert Camus (among others) reveal more than the author’s academic passion. Small Staid is preoccupied with understanding her own life as a set of emotions and experiences that contribute—directly or indirectly, positively or negatively, and even ambiguously—to her happiness.
Because The Traces is a retrospective back to Small Staid’s time as a young adult, it is a particularly valuable read for students—perhaps best saved for a long weekend when its complexity and lyricism can be fully appreciated. It uses travel as a mechanism for a deeper discussion of life purposes and meanings, making it a staple read for those in formative years, or even those just looking to reflect.
Jia Tolentino, the author of Trick Mirror, aptly describes The Traces as “the kind of book that’ll be passed around like a good secret.” It does not offer concrete life advice, but rather leads readers to formulate their own conclusions and lessons while flipping through its pages.
In all its journeying, philosophizing, and experimenting, The Traces certainly reveals itself as an impressive debut by Small Staid, leaving us hungry for her future works.