Zee Finch grew up with a mentally disturbed mother who poisoned herself, witnessed by her daughter, when Zee was 11. Now, as an adult, Zee has become a well-respected psychotherapist with a thriving practice and a close friendship with her boss. But when one of her patients commits suicide, Zee is slammed back into her past. She breaks off with her financé and returns home to care for her aging father, whose Parkinson’s has suddenly taken a turn for worse and who has also kicked out his longterm partner, a man who helped raise Zee after her mother’s death.
I am making The Map of True Places sound melodramatic (and I’m not even telling you the half of it), but in the hands of author Brunonia Barry it reads simply as one woman’s life. Zee is believable and sympathetic. Her quest for truth unfolds in a way that feels inevitable and satisfactory.
The novel is set in Salem, Massachusetts, which plays its own role. There are echoes between past and present, both the recent past of Zee’s mother’s life and the distant past of a time when Salem was a port city known for its ships and sailors. Before she died, Zee’s mother was obsessed with an old tale of forbidden love between a young sailor and a Captain’s bride, and she managed to persuade her husband to buy the actual house where the Captain lived before he was poisoned by his own wife. There, during the time of the story, two more poisonings take place. The book is shot through with threads of poison, infidelity, abusive men, unhappy women. Yet there is also true, enduring friendship and love, support of community, shared histories.
Zee’s quest for truth encompasses not only her own life and that of her parents, but her former patient’s life as well. Her choice to attend the funeral sparks a relationship with a man who saw the fatal jump, and draws in a more sinister force as well. As her new relationship develops, she finds that eventually her new love frees her from the destructive elements of her past, bringing wholeness to old homes, islands and boats and the sea.
The Map of True Places refers often to maps and celestial navigation. As Zee discovers more and more, she essentially has to relearn how to navigate her life. But the essentials—love of family and friends—remain constant as the unmoving stars above by which a sailor crosses the ocean to return safely home.
This is an excellent book, well-written and thoroughly enjoyable on many different levels (seriously, you could spend days noting all the themes and tracing them through). I recommend that you get yourself a copy and some uninterrupted time to enjoy it!
Author Brunonia Barry has written an essay about the “true places” of her own life. Read her guest column at On Reading and enter to win a free copy of her book (you can share your own, or just leave a comment). The giveaway is closed.
Elizabeth is planning to write a post on the “true places” of her life soon. In the meantime, you can see what else she’s been up to at her blog Planet Nomad.