Sunday, January 25, 2009

Map of the World by Jane Hamilton

Why does every modern book that is recognized as good literature, or maybe it is just every book that has a recommendation by Oprah, have to be depressing? I know life isn't all sunshine and roses. I know that there has to be a problem (that's not the technical literary term, but it's all my brain can come up with for now) for a book to revolve around. But I'm tired of books that are depressing, depressing, depressing. And Jane Hamilton's book clearly falls into that category. Within the first twenty pages there's a major crisis. And it goes downhill from there.

I picked up a copy of Map of the World at the library book sale. There was no blurb on the back of the book. But the quotes recommending the book mentioned Jane Smiley as a similar author. I figured that was a good sales pitch. So I started reading. One of the blurbs said it was a book that is hard to put down - I agree. Not because I liked it but because I just wanted to get it over with.

The basic premise of the novel revolves around a young child drowning in a pond, a woman accused of sexually abusing a child, and the repercussions of two young girls having a mother in jail. How uplifting a book can it be? I am not suggesting that a book has to be uplifting to be good, but I also don't want to feel like the world is coming to an end and that social order has disappeared while I'm reading. There was very little redeeming about this book. I walked away feeling like the human race was doomed.

Did it have any good qualities? Yeah, I suppose it did. When I first read about the interaction between the mom and her daughters I had to smile. Hamilton portrayed a mother-child relationship true-to-life. I have had moments like she describes. And the presentation of life in jail was very intriguing. To hear about the marginalized women who by choice or by consequence end up in our public jail system opened my eyes to a group of people that I rarely think about.

I did like the switch in narrative between the husband and the wife. I think Hamilton did a nice job showing how two people living together can perceive individual moments so starkly different. The second part of the novel gave me a better understanding of the main character as I viewed her through her husbands' eyes.

When all was said and done though, I walked away from this book feeling heavy. And it wasn't a pleasant heavy feeling - as though I understood a terrible situation better (thinking of a book like The Kite Runner here.) Instead, it was just depressed and grumpy. I honestly felt like this book became an Oprah's Book Club book so that Oprah could have a show on women who are unjustly accused of crimes. I did not feel that it was a good enough book to merit the attention that being an Oprah's book allowed it to receive.

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