Brunonia Barry’s bestselling debut novel, THE LACE READER, was a powerful family saga with an especially strong sense of place. As the title of her second book hints, THE MAP OF TRUE PLACES also concerns itself with geography --- as much with the sometimes rocky landscapes of family relationships and internal struggles as with the real-world places we inhabit.
Zee Finch is a psychotherapist, a young woman whose professional star is on the rise, as her celebrity mentor allows her to take on more challenging cases independently. At times, Zee relishes her growing autonomy; at others, she lives in fear of getting burned out --- or being forced to confront her own demons through encounters with her patients’. At no time is this more true than when Zee learns that Lilly Braedon, a young wife and mother, has committed suicide, jumping off a Boston bridge.
Lilly’s death physically draws Zee back to Massachusetts’ North Shore, the territory of her youth, as she attends the funeral near her own hometown of Salem. And it symbolically guides Zee back to the spiritual terrain of her youth, as considering her patient’s suicide conjures memories of her own mother’s death, her troubled childhood, and her complicated relationship with her father, Finch.
Finch, an aging scholar of Nathaniel Hawthorne, has suffered from Parkinson’s for a while, but until Zee finally visits him after Lilly’s funeral, she has had no idea of the extent of his physical and mental deterioration. His long-time partner, Melville, has left him unexpectedly, and Finch is becoming increasingly lost in the words and world of Hawthorne. As Zee finds herself drawn into caring for her ailing father, she is compelled to explore the specter of her own mother, whose darkly painful fairy tales hint at her troubled mental state and bear uncomfortable parallels to the real-life story of Lilly.
Being back in Salem offers Zee clarity, as she considers her mother --- and her mother’s stories --- for the first time as a mature adult rather than just as a wounded daughter, and confusion, as she ponders her own mental health, her lack of enthusiasm for her upcoming wedding, and her increasing professional self-doubt. Mysteries abound, and Zee’s attempts to navigate the perilous terrain of her own and other’s psyches will require a brave heart and a reliably true compass.
Fans of THE LACE READER will be pleased to see a few people and places from that beloved novel playing cameos in THE MAP OF TRUE PLACES; this follow-up, however, can also be read on its own, and will likely increase Barry’s popularity. Here she is particularly ambitious, as she attempts to negotiate several different intersecting plots, each of which has a hold --- directly or indirectly --- on the heart and mind of her heroine.
To some readers, traveling the many side roads of Zee’s journey will be an invigorating exercise in discovery; for others, the trip might be just exhausting. Virtually all, however, will be able to recall moments in their own lives when the maps they drew for themselves didn’t quite match up to the ones found in printed atlases, to the expectations of the world at large. Watching Zee learn to use the proper instruments to navigate the course of her own future is a journey of sorts, too, one that readers will gladly make in the capable hands of tour guide Brunonia Barry.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on January 6, 2011
The Map of True Places