Saturday, June 13, 2009

Fiction Review: A Map of the World

Ten pages into reading Jane Hamilton’s novel, A Map of the World, for my book group, I realized I had read it before. That was probably about five years ago, though, and I didn’t remember how it ended, so I re-read it. I’m glad I did, and, oddly, I think I liked it better the second time. I remembered it was a somewhat dark book, filled with despair – something I don’t normally enjoy – but I had forgotten how well-written it is. The story, characters, and writing make it a very compelling book that’s hard to put down.

Right from the very first paragraphs, you know that something terrible is going to happen and you get some insight into how the main character, Alice, thinks and feels:

I used to think if you fell from grace it was more likely than not the result of one stupendous error, or else an unfortunate accident. I hadn’t learned that it can happen so gradually you don’t lose your stomach or hurt yourself in the landing. You don’t necessarily sense the motion. I’ve found it takes at least two and generally three things to alter the course of a life: You slip around the truth once, and then again, and one more time, and there you are, feeling, for a moment, that it was sudden, your arrival at the bottom of the heap.

I opened my eyes on a Monday morning in June last summer and I heard, somewhere far off, a siren belting out calamity. It was the last time I would listen so simply to a sound that could mean both disaster and pursuit. Emma and Claire were asleep and safe in their beds, and my own heart seemed to be beating regularly. If the barn was out the window, clean, white, the grass cropped as close as a golf course, then my husband Howard was all right. I raised up to take a look. It was still standing, as I suspected it would be. I had never said out loud a little joke I used to say to myself now and again: Everywhere that barn goes, Howard, you are sure to be close behind. He was a philosophical and poetical farmer who bought Golden Guernseys because he both liked their color and the way “Golden Guernsey” floated off his tongue. It was secondary that the breed was famous for their butterfat. I worried about his choice when we bought the farm because I was certain that poetry is almost never rewarded. Now, in my more charitable moods, I wonder if our hardworking, God-fearing community members punished us for something as intangible as whimsy. We would not have felt eccentric in a northern city, but in Prairie Center we were perhaps outside the bounds of the collective imagination.

Those first two paragraphs provide a huge amount of information about Alice and her family and give a good example of how Alice thinks – in a sort of rambling, thoughtful way. I sometimes found her lack of focus irritating, but some in my book group really related to her.

You know right away that something bad is going to happen, and you don’t have to wait long to find out what it is. In the first chapter, Alice’s best friend’s toddler daughter drowns in the pond at the farm while Alice is babysitting. The accident is, of course, absolutely devastating to every character, but it’s only the start of Alice’s problems in this community where she has never felt accepted and in her role as mother in which she has never felt completely adequate.

Does this sound depressing? Well, it is, but it’s also fascinating and suspenseful, culminating in a courtroom drama. Interestingly, as a friend pointed out at book group, customer reviews of A Map of the World on are evenly distributed among all five ratings, from 1 to 5. We did an informal poll at book group, and almost everyone rated the book a 3 or a 4 and agreed it was well-written and compelling.

However, we were about evenly split on how we felt about Alice. About half of the group really related to her struggles with motherhood, depression, and her feelings of isolation. The other half – myself included – were vaguely annoyed by Alice’s behavior and wanted her to pull herself together (her response to the child’s drowning was understandable but her behavior in other aspects of the novel was sometimes hard for me to relate to). Some of the group found the book uplifting in the end and some still found it depressing. One thing we all agreed on – it was a gripping, very thought-provoking novel, and we had plenty to talk about!

Doubleday, 390 pages


  1. I remember really appreciating this book when I read it. It's hard to write a story that bleak while still keeping the reader interested. But I don't think I'll ever read it again.


  2. Anonymous3:23 AM

    After reading serious literary fiction, I've often thought I'd like it better the second time through. I usually don't make the effort, but I do think about it.

    Thanks for sharing your review.

  3. Hi, I tried to read this book and perhaps did not give it enough time. I don't really enjoy dark, sad books either.
    Pam mentioned your blog on hers, and I can see why. What a pleasure to read your reviews and your choices of books are very different than mine, and I really enjoy expanding my horizons.

  4. This sounds like a great book club pick - lots of "issues" to discuss. Strangely enough, most of the members of my book club seem to have a preference for "bleak" books. Not sure why...