Welcome to a book with no plot, no suspense, no conflict, no scary-sexy vampires, and no (thankfully,) surprise twist at the end. The book is Their Wedding Journey and the author is the forgotten American savant, William Dean Howells (1837-1920.) Howells dominated American literature between the Civil War and the Great War. He was the man most responsible for what came to be known as Literary Realism, which was a reaction to the Romantics (including my favorite author, James Fenimore Cooper, who was, let's be honest, a hopeless romantic.)
Howells' Their Wedding Journey, his first novel, might better be described as a travelogue or a sketch than a novel and you might as well understand this before you read it - nothing much happens. The story follows Basil and Isabel March on their honeymoon journey. It's sometime shortly after the Civil War and the honeymooners travel from Boston to New York and up the Hudson River and west to Rochester and Niagara Falls and along the Thousand Islands to Montreal and Quebec and south, home to Boston, going by carriage and train and boat. Basil and Isabel aren't young marrieds, he's early thirties, she's late twenties, a point Howells impresses upon us because it's important to the realist. A newlywed couple ten years younger than ours might be silly and immature, might be too caught up in themselves to notice the people and things around them and since noticing what's around them is a big part of what this book is about, Howells gives his couple an additional ten years apiece. That's realism, folks.
Did I say there was no conflict? Well, there's a lover's spat - to take a two-horse carriage or a one-horse carriage in a trip around a mountain. Isabel is for two horses, Basil is for one. Isabel wins. Excitement? How about shooting the rapids along the St. Lawrence? Here Howells proves he can write adventure when he chooses, his characters shooting the rapids just like Cooper's characters, well, not quite the same, not remotely the same, but Howells was good at it, although it wasn't particularly important to him, the adventure part of it.
Howells tells us in the very first paragraph of the book how a skilled romantic could turn the romance of Basil and Isabel to "excellent account." That is, throw in some villains and some perils and there's your conflict. They could maybe somehow almost go over Niagara Falls or get robbed by highwaymen, but again, not interested. They just go along their journey and observe and comment (never in a catty way,) about the folks and things they see. Some of those folks they get to know, most they don't, they just infer with regard to peoples' lives based on what little they see and hear and maybe the inferences are correct, maybe not, it doesn't really matter, and what they see and who they meet are some very interesting, if ordinary, folks, folks interesting because they are ordinary. There's the gullible German immigrant who gets bamboozled on a train and doesn't realize it; the southern gentleman in the hotel, so arrogant before the war and so broken down now in spirit, his arrogance gone, you might say, with the wind. The nuns of old Quebec. The encounters are more observation than engagement; few of them would be worth commenting on if the commenter was someone other than Howells.
The book is not long, just two hundred pages, but it's the mark of the writer, to carry the reader along, to enchant the reader without ever doing anything more than presenting him, or her, with some solid writing.
One argument I would make with Mr. Howells: He claims his book is not a romance and I suppose it isn't, if you're talking about Romance in literary terms, but it's romantic enough, riding the trains and the boats and the carriages with the amiable newlyweds and without the apprehension of something awful happening. If you're looking for two very ordinary people in love, you can't do much better than this book. And as kind of a spoiler, although I hope I've already made this clear, Howells will, in the course of the book, remain true to his style and his vision. Our heroine isn't going to get a fatal disease or swallow poison and die, leaving our hero bereft like in some other famous love stories. No, they're just going to conclude their honeymoon and get on with the rest of their lives and the rest of their lives will include revisiting, ten years later, some of the places they visited on their honeymoon, this time with the kids in tow, and surprise, surprise, nothing much will happen.