The Map of True Places
by Brunonia Barry
"It's not down on any map; true places never are."
-- Herman Melville
Apparently, I was the only person in America not raving about The Lace Reader last year. I didn't hate it, but I had a really hard time relating to the female protagonist, Towner Whitney. Having been curious enough to have read Ms. Barry's second novel, The Map of True Places, again I find myself in the disenchanted minority--and with the exact same complaint!
Brunonia Barry's new stand alone novel is set in the same world--the same Salem--as her first. Characters from The Lace Reader are referenced or make brief appearances. However, this novel is more grounded in the real world of psychology and medicine than with the ethereal subjects she had explored previously. The central character is Hepzibah Finch, known as "Zee." (And what is it with these names, Brunonia?).
Zee is a psychologist in crisis. She's just lost her first patient, and is having a hard time accepting that Lilly Braedon committed suicide. Zee's own mother had killed herself when Zee was a teen, and feelings about the two women have become entangled in a very non-clinical way. Meanwhile, other areas of Zee's life are falling apart. Her father's Parkinson's disease is far more advanced than she had been led to believe. She suddenly needs to step in as a care-giver, putting additional strain on an already strained relationship.
My frustration with this central character exists on several levels, but here is one issue I can illustrate easily enough. Allow me to share some quotes from the novel. All of these are spoken by, or refer to, Zee:
"I don't know what I want."
"The truth was, she didn't know if she didn't want to get married at all, or if she just hated the process."
"She was angry at Michael, though she had no real reason for this except that he so clearly knew what he wanted in all areas of his life, while she couldn't seem to make as simple a choice as whether or not to serve sushi at the wedding."
"Zee had once known exactly what kind of life she wanted. Now she drew a complete blank."
"I don't know what I feel."
"He had never asked her what she wanted out of life... These days she had to admit she had no idea."
"Though she was still having doubts about her choice of career, Zee knew she had to get back to work."
"I don't know what I want either."
"I don't think what I was or was not ready for was clear in any way, least of all to me."
"More than a few of the tears were relief; because... she had no big decisions to make."
"She honestly couldn't remember the last time she'd ordered ice cream for herself. It was ridiculous to be flustered by such a small thing, but there it was. He was waiting for her choice and she didn't have one."
I'm a highly empathetic reader, but I found Zee to be so bland, wishy-washy, and indecisive that I just wanted to slap her. I find it hard to become engaged in a character that passive. I pulled a whole other list of quotes that show the character to be tongue-tied and inarticulate, but given the length of this review, I'll spare you. My point was that as a reader, all I have are the character's words and thoughts to go by, and either Zee or Brunonia just wouldn't spit them out.
I can see that Ms. Barry's work resonates with the majority of her readers. That I am not among their number is unfortunate for me. But henceforth I will try to ignore my curiosity and Brunonia and I will go our separate ways, and we will both be happier for it.