A Map of the Known World (April 2009) is Lisa Ann Sandell's third novel (it was also the first book I have discovered that was edited by Aimee Friedman a neat-o YA author in her own right whom I met very, very, very briefly at a reading). She has two other critically acclaimed novels under her belt. According to her website, those previous books were written in verse. I feel like saying that now because I want to address the tone of the book, before saying anything else about it. At times the writing felt erratic--sometimes profoundly authentic, at other times very much like a writer writing as a teen. That might be due in part to Sandell's experience with free verse. It might also be because I was reading and uncorrected advanced proof. I don't know, but I wanted to point it out all the same. Now you know.
Cora's life fell apart with a sudden crash. The Bradley family had been falling apart for some time, but when Cora's older brother Nate dies in a car crash, everything is irreparably and irrevocably broken. In his wake Nate has left Cora with nothing. Her father has retreated into his private den and his daily gin and tonics. Her mother is a shadow of her former self, going through the motions of their normal life while issuing rules meant to protect Cora when, in reality, they only suffocate her.
Cora is left adrift unsure how to deal with the anger she has for her brother or anything else. Cora isn't sure she can deal with starting high school as the girl with a dead brother. She can barely even deal with her small town and all of its constant reminders of the way things used to be:
Somewhere, things must be beautiful and vivid. Somewhere else, life has to beautiful and vivid and rich. Not like this muted palette--a pale blue bedroom, washed out sunny sky, dull green yellow brown of the fields. Here, I know every twist of every road, every blade of grass, every face in this town, and I am suffocating.
Lacking any other support system, Cora finds a refuge in her art. Working from a salvaged map, Cora sketches exotic locations in far off lands--places that Cora is sure are the key to her salvation.
In addition to dealing with Nate's death, Cora has to deal with the more mundane matter of starting high school. As her best friend throws herself into their new environment, Cora finds herself at the sidelines trying to figure out what it means to be growing up, especially when she knows her brother never can.
Cora never gets to the locations she draws in her maps, but her art does lead her to something equally important: An identity beyond Nate Bradley's little sister. With the help of Damian Archer, the other boy in the car when Nate died, Cora also learns the truth about her brother and, perhaps, a way to fix the hole Nate left in her family after the accident.
Sandell expertly deals with Cora's struggles to redefine herself in relation to this tragedy and her broken family. At times the writing veers toward the overwrought, but for the most part, the writing holds true. Cora is also shockingly authentic in both her grief and, I think, in her changing relationships with other characters. I often complain that teen characters are nothing like me or any of the teens I know, but Cora is. Thrown into high school without a map, Cora's confusion over suddenly being a "real" teenager and having to find new friends will ring true with many readers.
On another note, I really liked the simplicity of the cover which evokes the art described within the novel while simultaneously alluding to the healing process after Nate's death (the heart on the cover is made of scrap metal, I believe car parts but lacking a car cannot accurately gauge).
(This book reminded me a lot of the events of Drawing the Ocean by Carolyn McCullough and the tone found in Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson. I suspect that readers of those books will like this one and vice versa, just fyi.)