Three often frustratingly frail people are given a new lease on life by people who draw them “new maps of the universe,” only to suffer—somehow find a way to go on—from their loss. In doing so, they try to make themselves whole, with varying degrees of success. And while author Annabel Smith at times succeeds in portraying lost souls grappling for support and self-reliance in a sea of seemingly perfectly capable others, this is just as often upset by the forced intensity of the prose; if one may allow the analogy of melancholic yearning to sugar, this is saccharine.
Grace meets Michael at a party, and from the start we’re force-fed cosmic immensity (“It begins with Orion, a constellation he gives her as a gift before she even knows his name.”) as a backdrop for a world-weary young woman. He takes her out to dinner, then later in his bedroom, draws constellations on her naked body in silver eyeliner (he’s an anthropologist who studies constellations, you see), and licks them off. I imagine this is supposed to be romantic, and the prose doesn’t let off for a moment in trying to convince us how precious and delicate it is. The perfection of their relationship is disrupted when he has to go on a research trip for five months, and Grace wallows in despair for a few chapters. What was disgust at their creepiness turns to annoyance at Grace, who seems incapable of bare functioning, let alone happiness in Michael’s absence. But again, Smith is determined to build that Glass Menagerie romantic haze, to endow every sentence with 12 kinds of significance. Grace holds onto his letters like body armor and at every moment seems about to crack.
What are the circumstances that could have produced this desperately lonely woman? The bulk of the novel is the story of her parents, suggesting (but never explicitly) some serious mommy and daddy issues—we learn early on that her father died when very young, turning her mother into a cruelly cold husk. The tales of her parents are thankfully told in a far more relaxed tone. As a result, they’re far more credible and enjoyable, making the emotional passages moving rather than exasperated extensions of over-dense prose. Like Grace, they are in need of direction and support, and like Grace, they find it in single individuals who change their lives and then leave them. Peter, lacking a father, discovers a priest who introduces him to God and eventually succumbs to cancer; Madeleine finds Peter, who we know is destined to die. These stories are well-told character studies, but rather simplistic. We lose sight of Grace’s story in these parts, so much so that they feel like separate novellas, which may not have been such a bad idea.
As Grace struggles to reconcile her parents’ pasts with her own damaged life in the conclusion, I’m left to wonder, what does Smith think about the rest of us—that is, those who don’t need a savior to rescue us and light the way to self-discovery? Smith portrays these three characters not as simplistically as victims of a cruel society, but aliens in a cold one. But are those of us who had good childhoods and don’t need intensive coddling incapable of these deep emotions? What do these stories have to say to those who do have the capacity for self-reliance in the face of life’s troubles and spiritual destitution? Perhaps this novel isn’t written for them, in which case this criticism is of far less importance—hopefully this will illumine hope to some hurt soul. But even if it is, it should be noted that this critique stems from the incredible emphasis placed on manufacturing an intimate atmosphere of delicate isolation, which feels too forced. There’s graceful, melodic, mournful prose, then there’s trying too hard, roughly the equivalent of overacting a death scene in a play. It’s a failure with two consequences: the character loses credibility, and the scene reeks of self-importance. Both of these consequences are present in A New Map of the Universe, which has many worthy passages and the potential for an elegiac sort of eloquence but is overrun by earnest self-importance.