Sunday, May 1, 2011

The Map of True Places

by Brunonia Barry
New York, Harper, 2011
403 pages     Fiction

Salem Massachusetts is the setting for Brunonia Barry’s novel, The Map of True Places, which has recently been released in paperback. When you hear the name Salem, you immediately think of witches, Nathanial Hawthorne, the House of the Seven Gables, and Salem Harbor. All of these play a part in the atmospheric and psychological drama that unfolds in The Map of True Places.

Zee (short for Hepzibah) Finch has been totally overburdened by life: her mother Maureen committed suicide when Zee was a young teenager; her father has dementia and Parkinson’s disease; he has broken off with his partner, Melville; and one of Zee’s counseling patients has just committed suicide. She is supposed to be planning her wedding and is not at all sure she wants to go through with it. She runs away home to Salem to visit her dad, called Finch, and his partner, discovers they have broken up, and Finch is in very bad physical and mental shape. So, on top of everything else, she decides to take a leave of absence from her counseling practice and concentrate on helping her father.

It is obvious that Salem is a place near and dear to author Barry’s heart, because the characters that populate the community populate the book, and the sights and sounds of Salem are important to the plot and the character development. Consequently there is a great sense of place in the novel. The setting is very real and makes to book come to life. Since I had only been to Salem once and very briefly, the book made me want to return and get a feel for what I had missed in the first place.

The character development is also good. I felt very sympathetic towards Zee, the young psychologist, who is so lost, even when she has to be so determined in the care of her father. She is suffering greatly, but she is by nature a care giver—first of her mother, then of her clients, now for her father. She has not been able to find her own way in life. Her “map of true places” as the title would indicate. Her friend and colleague says: “I’m asking you to consider what you want for a change. You have a pattern of doing what is expected of you, what other people want you to do…you go along and go along, but then you begin to act out.” Many of us can identify with the kind of thinking that allows a woman to do what is expected of us. Many of us are searching for our own “map of true places.”

And then there is the past—Zee’s past as well as the past of Salem. The past keeps intruding into the present, for Zee as well as for her father. An expert in Hawthorne, Finch sometimes forgets that he is not Hawthorne and that he only lives next door to the House of the Seven Gables. Even the house that Zee was raised in becomes a plot device. One reviewer suggested this as an important part of the book. “Where she (Barry) does succeed is in the tension she creates between the normal moments of everyday life and the uncanny intrusions of the past into it. Her characters move through their days performing their duties and taking care of their responsibilities, only to be waylaid by unconscious desires and memories.”

There is something too convenient in the conclusion of the book. A couple of times I even wrote OMG in the margins.  I had trouble convincing myself that the plot devices were warranted and authentic. The reviewer in the Washington Post had many of the same thoughts. She said: “The novel, though serious in intent at the beginning, shows signs of carelessness and repetition as it unfolds. But The Map of True Places is admirable in many ways. It's a brave and sympathetic idea to use terminal illness as a plot device and spend time outlining what happens in a home where someone is gravely ill. The meditations on American history, assisted suicide, reincarnation and celestial navigation are informative and even endearing. But is this book serious or not? Does everybody in the novel have to be mistakenly named for somebody else? Does the secret revealed at the end make any real difference to the story?”

The Map of True Places is a good beach read. You can sigh when it is finished, and then move on to the next book. Barry is the author of another novel set in Salem, The Lace Reader.

I was sent the book by the publisher’s agent.

The review in the Washington Post:

The review in the Columbus Dispatch:

Brunonia Barry’s website and blog:

The book's website:

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