A Map of the World by Jane Hamilton

I picked up Jane Hamilton’s A Map of the World somewhere — a garage sale, a Goodwill, a used bookstore — based solely on her name. Around 2012, I was teaching at an all-women’s college and thought it interesting to craft a literature course called “The Twisted Domestic.” I included books that showed the harder side of domesticity, the side in which things don’t go according to plan. On the list of required reading was The Book of Ruth by Jane Hamilton. Perhaps I was inspired by the film Mona Lisa Smile in which students at an all-women’s college score perfectly in their courses because they’ve memorized the textbooks before the first day of class, and the real objective is to get a man and become perfect wives and mothers. I loved Hamilton’s ability to craft a story about people in The Book of Ruth and was eager to try more of her writing.

A Map of the World again takes us into the domestic realm. Alice and Howard buy a farm in Wisconsin. Farming has been Howard’s life-long dream, and Alice trains to become the part-time school nurse. They have two daughters, one of which is not described warmly at first. In fact, when I started reading this novel aloud to my husband, I gave the five-year-old Emma a Satan voice. It was funny at first. Three-year-old Claire creepily says things like, “I’m going to die when you do.” Okay, so not everything is dreamy at the farm.

A Map of the World
This is also an Oprah book club pick, in case that kind of thing matters to you.

Alice’s best friend and neighbor have an arrangement to babysit on certain days so each woman can get a break and become themselves again, as mothers often need to. On the day Alice watches little Lizzy and Audrey in addition to her own children, she decides it’s so hot that they must go swimming in the pond out back. Alice runs upstairs to get her bathing suit. It’s only a minute — or is it? — and when she comes back down, Lizzy is missing. She is found floating face down in the pond. This is all in the first chapter. At this point, my husband asked that I not read this book to him anymore.

The novel is broken into three sections: Alice narrating Lizzy’s death and funeral, Howard narrating what happens next, and then back to Alice narrating the consequences of what happened to her that summer. Just when I thought I couldn’t bear Alice’s deep sorrow and her losing touch with reality, Jane Hamilton shifts to Howard’s perspective, which was a relief. I appreciated that Hamilton let the reader step back and see Alice from the outside.

I was vague above about “what happens next,” but it can’t be a spoiler — it’s so early in the book. Alice is arrested after several children at the school where she’s a nurse accuse her of sexually abusing them. She spends the whole summer in jail awaiting trial while Howard tries to be both farmer and father. You may be saying He was always a father — duh, but a farmer isn’t conducive to watchful parenting. The hours are irregular and the work challenging. It’s not like his small children can shadow him all day. Things become desperate, and Alice seems less grounded than before.

The plot is more introspective than action. I’ve outlined the major plot points above, but so much more happens. Hamilton has this gorgeous way of taking readers into the land of sorrow and letting them explore it, even if we have not faced the same depth of loss as the characters. Reactions feel real, especially the small children whose mother is gone all summer and good playmate has drowned. Though it was easy for me to feel distant from Alice, who seems purposefully odd, that final section brings her together in a way that makes her solidly human. Hamilton never makes it easy for her characters, which I appreciate, because even though I want things to work out, she chooses realistically instead of hopefully.

A Map of the World is a long, slow read, which is hard to swallow as a book blogger trying to keep up with content, but pair it with some shorter, fluffier reads, like Knit One, Girl Two, and you’re good to go. I recognize that while it took two weeks to finish, I remember more about the characters in this novel than many others I’ve read lately. I love The Book of Ruth much more, but Hamilton’s writing style is up to par in this novel as well.

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38 comments

  1. My issue with the book is that I was almost immediately expected to feel sad for this child who drowned and this woman who was supposed to be watching her when I knew next to nothing about either and had no stake in them. I am sure it made sense with the rest of the book read as context, but it just felt unearned when it was happening. I didn’t want to spend a few weeks looking forward to evenings reading a book that used my basic human decency to make me sad. If a book to going to give me feels, it has to put in the time and reasons for me to work them in myself.

    • I think you’re right, and I love that you have boundaries on your emotions. That’s something that took me years to learn, and I surely didn’t learn it alone. The weird thing is that the drowning almost falls away in the book, like it doesn’t matter. During the trial, I was concerned that the victim’s attorney would bring up the accident to show Alice is vindictive, but the judge had already made it clear that Lizzy’s drowning had no part in the abuse claims and could not be used as evidence. So, why did she exist in this story, then?

  2. This one sounds like a memorable read that really explores some of those family dynamics. I can understand why it took you a bit of time to get through it. For myself, I think I’d wait until I was ready for something darker and more thoughtful like that.

    Oh, and by the way, I love your idea for a literature course!

    • Thanks, Margot! I even found a collection of short stories by a man, which is uncommon. I’d argue more men need to write domestic literature because they’re a part of it, but we don’t see that. How many novels and stories use the father as the cheater or workaholic, and that’s it? I would pair For Sale by Owner by Kelcey Parker with Cul de Sac by Scott Wrobel.

    • Some of the most interesting and twisted fiction in the class was “Baby” by Paula Bomer and the collection of short stories In the House by Lynn K Kilpatrick. I love this one in which the mother is clean–you’d swear she’s just diligent–but maybe (or maybe didn’t) murder her husband and is cleaning up the evidence. What fun!

  3. It sounds this book explores some potentially painful and dark issues. I am really intrigued by that change in narrative – it’s a really great idea to break the narrative and let the main character by observed and described by someone else and then coming back to it.

    By the way you giving Emma a Satan voice made me laugh, it’s always so much fun reading books to someone else so we start exploring different voices.

    • I’m currently reading Joe Jones by Anne Lamott to my husband, and in it there is a young man who is gay. My first thought was “Oh, it’s so easy to do a stereotype of a gay man,” but the character is so sullen, almost like a gothic kid from the 90s, that I gave him this deep, apathetic voice that fits so perfectly! The voices I do sure change the way we feel about the characters.

      • I find it so beautiful that you read to your husband. And thanks for sharing with me your story about the gothic kid, that’s super cool. I usually read nonfiction to my boyfriend but will use this inspiration to try something else as well. Thanks Melanie.

        • You’re welcome! I once read that reading to a significant other every night strengthens a relationship. You both know how the night will end, you likely feel anticipation about hanging out if the story is good, and it’s scheduled time together. I actually started reading to my husband because I got hearing aids, and to strengthen your ear follicles, you have to read aloud for 20 minutes per day for several months.

    • I feel like children dying, especially girls, is “having a moment” in the thriller genre. A Map of the World was published in 1992. I was surprised that Lizzy’s death played such a small role in the novel, so I’m not sure if it was meant to be the catalyst to a horrible summer, or what.

  4. It’s kind of odd to begin with a child’s death (I say death, but I think you said the child is missing. I assumed they drowned), then take the story in an entirely different direction. On a side note, I have never seen Mona Lisa Smile. Is a film I ought to watch?

    • The child is missing for all of two seconds before Alice realizes the only other place she could be is at the pond, which is where she’s found drowned (because she was unsupervised, nothing nefarious). I really enjoy Mona Lisa smile, and it’s got several of the young star actresses of the day. It REALLY reminded me of when I was teaching at an all-women’s college, except the students didn’t memorize the textbook before the first day of class.

  5. I’m with Nick in that I resist being manipulated, but I wonder if the author thought a child drowning was just your average beginning to a bad summer. I have two great fears – my children, and now my grandchildren, drowning in a home pool; and backing over one of them with the car or the truck. As for the rest of the novel, in Australia you’d have to commit murder to be held pending trial without bail. In the book I just reviewed the farmer’s wife disappears and he basically leaves the ten year old to bring up the five year old (and make his meals) – no mothering there.

    • There is a donor at Notre Dame who gives the university millions of dollars with one caveat: every student must take a swim class and pass. I guess the family’s child drowned because he/she didn’t know how to swim. I also know two people whose children were run over. One survived and one did not…..these are all awful scenarios that we SHOULD be fearful of. I also had a student a few years ago whose mother had abandoned him and his siblings in a hotel room. All the things we look at in books and find too full of pathos? These things really happen. To children. Children we don’t know. Which is part of what kept me reading. Sure, I didn’t know the characters Lizzy or Alice well, but I don’t know the children who face abuse every day in my city, either. I can’t turn away from those stories. I have a friend who is doing training so she can be a court-appointed person for abused children. She won’t be a foster parent, but the person who is unbiased who goes to court and makes decisions on behalf of minors. She doesn’t know those kids personally, either. I’m VERY proud of her.

      • I think you are hard on us not letting us ‘like’ your comments. I probably do turn away from other people’s problems yet my children are a teacher, a worker in disability care, and a volunteer with refugees. I’m very proud of them.

  6. Jane Hamilton is one of my Have-Read-Everything authors who never actually made my Must-Read-Everything list, meaning that I never consciously chose to include her there, but have simply, naturally, continued to read every book since discovering her through The Book of Ruth (which I loved, loved, loved, from first reading). I’m not sure I’ve ever felt quite so immersed in one of her stories since then (my next favourite might be A Short History of a Prince) but I have found something to admire in each of them. I guess I should update my list!

    • I have more of her books that I haven’t read: laura Rider’s Masterpiece and Disobedience . I tend to find them at Goodwill or used bookstores. The Book of Ruth was also my introduction to here, and even though I hated every single main adult character, I still loved them nonetheless, which tells me how human hamilton’s characters are.

  7. Powerful review of a powerful book, Melanie. I’m with Nick on this one. I would have been like, “PASS.” once we got to drowning 5-year-olds. It’s obvious from this point on, things are only going to keep going downhill. While I enjoy the occasional book which digs into the tragedies of humanity, I have to be in the right mood. And that rarely comes around. Positivity for me at all times! YAY HAPPY BUNNIES RAINBOWS UNICORNS HAPPY YAY. That’s what I want at all times. Because it’s my free-time, dammit! I can do what I want. 🙂

    Also: that aside about being an Oprah book made me laugh aloud. Nicely done. Because, well, I don’t care.

    • I’m not interested in celebrity book book clubs, even if I like the celebrity. Oprah, Reese Witherspoon, and Emma Watson so have book club. This goes back to my conversation about working in a library giving that person a position of power: they shape what the public is exposed to. Celebrities have so much sway that their favorite books become best sellers when the book not have otherwise.

      • I second this. But I also find that it helps elevate good books which might have been lost into obscurity. Older or newer ones. For example, I follow Emma Watson’s Our Shared Shelf and I don’t always agree with wanting to read her choices, but I love learning about some of these authors.

        Regardless, I love your position on this. You’re right — it does put people in a position of power. With great power comes great responsibility. And I never have considered that any of these celebrities are abusing this power.

        • Definitely not abusing their power. More like, whatever they pick enters history as a bestseller for reasons one person chose. Even if readers dislike the book, they still bought it, which speaks……VOLUMES. Eh? EHH?

          • True. I imagine a lot of wine-clubs-posing-as-book-clubs select these sorts of books because they trust the celebrity has chosen something which makes for a good book club book. As a frequent participant in book clubs, I have found there are many books which don’t make for book club books. You need something to discuss! And these celebrity book clubs do a good job selecting books with discuss-able topics.

            However, I don’t know of any male-led celebrity book clubs. Huh. That’s odd…

            P.S. Brilliant book pun. A+.

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