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.
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.