“It is not down in any map; true places never are.” ~ Herman Melville
Thus begins Brunonia Barry’s latest novel, The Map of True Places, a novel of secrets, family, and the untruths that manage to hold them all together. Hepzibah “Zee” is a therapist who seems a bit lost. In her job, she feels she has crossed the lines of professionalism with one patient, Lilly Braedon. Lilly is manic depressive, and Zee is desperate to help her. Zee’s own mother, also manic depressive, killed herself when Zee was a child, after realizing that neither her dreams nor reality could bring her the one big love of her life. Lilly’s story is so similar that Zee begins to be haunted by her memories of her fragmented childhood and her inability to save her mother. When Lilly commits suicide, Zee’s life is shifted off its axis, as she thinks she should have seen it coming. She is plunged back into her childhood and hometown of Salem – a means of comfort and escape – only to realize that although her mother is gone, her father is here – and not for long. Finch has hidden his advanced Parkinson’s disease from his daughter and has kicked out his long-time partner and caretaker, Melville. Finch will not divulge why Melville is no longer allowed in the house. Melville, Finch’s partner, a younger man, is devastated. He loves Finch, and as the disease progresses, he must choose to force his memories on Finch or to simply have the pleasure to be in his company as a virtual stranger. Once a Hawthorne researcher, Finch has become delusional, and Zee must confront her anger, resentment, hurt, and sadness before determining how to best care for her father.
I am of two minds on this novel. On one hand, the story was gripping. With manic depression, suicide, and Parkinson’s disease, it certainly sounds like a downer, and Zee’s flashbacks to her mother’s episodes could be disturbing. The treatment of mental illness, though, was on the whole, sensitive and true. Maureen, Zee’s mother, followed as much a pattern as any untreated manic depressive can. Her story unfolds through the eyes of Zee’s childhood – the obsession with a Salem legend, the trips to a psychic, even the jealousy of mother toward child and the pits of despair and depression when fantasy turned to the reality of her daily life.
Zee, too, was worth following. When the novel opens, she is engaged to Michael but thoroughly uninterested in her wedding. She is indecisive and increasingly unsure of herself and her place in the world. She works for a famous psychotherapist, Mattei, but doubts herself and her skills as well as the drive she needs to succeed. The adulthood and responsibility that were thrust on Zee at an early age also stunted any true growth in her, but faced with the illness of her father, Zee must navigate the depths of her own psyche in order to finally be at peace and come into her own.
Unfortunately, as readable and enjoyable as I found The Map of True Places, ultimately, the novel fell flat in the last third. Plot elements seemed contrived; some plot lines dangled while others were much too neatly finished. The interference of the life and trappings of the dead patient, Lilly, was too frequent and coincidental, and in my opinion, did nothing to further the story. Barry had all she needed, and she took it too far. The legend with which Maureen was obsessed resurfaces; Zee’s lover conveniently resembles one of the players in that story. A bottle of strychnine, the poison responsible for Maureen’s death, reappears. Lilly’s abusive ex-boyfriend stalks Zee. A book of poetry and a suicide note never before seen by Zee reveal a long-held secret… You see where I’m going with this. It’s not pretty.
All in all, this promising novel relinquished its hold on me. I wish there were do-overs in literature. This would be one for which I would demand a rewritten ending. Lest you think me naive, I don’t have to like every ending to a novel. I don’t expect to. I do, though, expect a satisfying conclusion that fits the level of writing of the first portion of the novel. Regrettably, Ms. Barry, similarly to her main character, seems to have lost her way.