Listening to Rhonda, Zee had wished for the first time that she were one of those girls who knew what she wanted. She’d been one of those girls once, but it seemed so long ago she could hardly remember how it felt. ~from The Map of True Places
I recognized Zee Finch immediately – restless, removed, unsure of herself, carrying a burden of secret thoughts, hidden emotions. I recognized myself in her, even though I’m old enough to be her mother. Zee Finch and I are both searching for our “true place,” the spot on our lifemap where we know we finally belong.
The Map of True Places is an emotionally riveting novel about a young woman’s quest to discover the truth about herself and her relationship with her family. Zee Finch is a respected young psychotherapist practicing in Boston when one of her most difficult patients dies in an apparent suicide. This death throws Zee into a tailspin, recalling her own mother’s suicide when Zee was a young teenager. Her return to her hometown of Salem is just the beginning of a longer voyage of discovery into her past. She begins caring for her ailing father, sorting through the memories of her relationship with her mentally ill mother, and generally rethinking the path she once set out upon. Just where does she belong, and how will she navigate her way to the “true place” she needs to find happiness and fulfillment?
It’s everyone’s quest, really, whether or not we have wonderful, close relationships with our parents, whether or not we have successful careers, loving partners. Like stars in the sky, each person’s life requires an entire constellation of people and pursuits to make them feel whole and worthwhile.
If you had done your calculations properly, there would be a moment when you found that the star you were looking for was exactly where it should be on the horizon. In that instant the universe made sense, and you knew that no matter what else happened in the world, the stars would always tell you where you were, and when they did, you would always be able to find your way home.
“Doing the calculations properly” is what holds Zee back in the novel, as she searches almost blindly at times for the north star by which to steer. She hasn’t found it in her fiance, Michael. She wonders, after her patient’s death, if she’s found it in her career. Perhaps it’s in Hawk, the young carpenter/shiprigger whom she meets in Salem and finds herself immediately attracted to. Perhaps it will be in caring for her father during his final illness. And perhaps it will be in solving the mystery of her patient’s death and her mother’s life, neither of which seem to be resolved to Zee’s satisfaction.
Ultimately, Zee has to learn the lesson I struggle with on a daily basis, especially now as I contemplate changing my own course in some major ways. Zee’s mentor and friend Mattei tells her:
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. It’s not an unusual pattern for women, but it’s more extreme in your case, first, with your parents, then with Michael, and even with me, with this job. You go along and go along, but then you begin to act out. All little acts of rebellion that lead to big consequences you blame yourself for.
The Map of True Places is a deeply introspective novel, one that invites the reader to plumb the emotional depths of some very complicated characters. These complex relationships are articulated with tidbits of history, mythology, and celestial navigation. But there are overtones of suspense and mystery in the story lines as well, keeping the reader wondering and providing more than one surprise twist of fate. Barry writes with obvious affection and a deep knowledge of Salem and shipbuilding lore, adding an extra element of veracity to the tale.
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