by Eliza Factor
|Akashic Books, 2015
Love Maps, published in May by Akashic Books, is Eliza Factor’s second novel. Her first novel, The Mercury Fountain—about a utopian society that mines mercury in order to reap its “magical” benefits—was selected as a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice in 2012. Factor considers The Mercury Fountain and Love Maps as the first and third novels, respectively, in a series of three. Although both novels are thematically different—Love Maps, unlike The Mercury Fountain, does not contain any elements of magical realism—they exist in the same world, feature many of the same locations, and have many overlapping characters. Love Maps focuses on a more realistic (albeit often bizarre) portrayal of life: it is about dysfunctional relationships—whether they are romantic, platonic, or familial—and the consequences of unusual or unintended expressions of love.
Love Maps begins in Connecticut in 1997. Sarah Marker, the protagonist, receives a letter from her long-absent husband Philip, informing her that he will be visiting her after nearly eight years. During his absence, Sarah gave birth to a son, Max, of whom Philip knows nothing about. Suddenly, it’s 1981, and Sarah is a thirty-one year old painter living in New York City. She wakes up to a telephone call from her godmother, Tori, informing her that Tori’s husband, Conningsby, has died. And that is how Sarah meets Philip for the first time, at a funeral parlor where they are expected to pick up Conningsby’s ashes. The novel juxtaposes Sarah’s past with her present through chapters alternating in time between the 1980s and 1997, dominantly following her relationships with Philip and her sister, Maya.
The title of the novel comes from a series of paintings Sarah creates, which documents her various romantic relationships throughout time. They mimic a subway map and show different colored dots for locations of breakups and hookups. Factor has described Love Maps as being fueled by the “friction between pride and desire.” This statement is most obviously demonstrated by Sarah in 1997, for it is this friction that causes her to drink and thoroughly examine her past relationship(s), and decide whether or not she should forgive Philip for leaving her. She desires Philip because he is “decent,” but she is too proud to admit this because of how he has treated her (which was the result of how Maya treated him). A subtler version of friction can be seen through the novel’s, or Sarah’s, understanding of time: the 1997 chapters are in the past tense, and the 1980s chapters are in the present tense. This move warps our linear expectation of time, and shows that the past feels like the present to Sarah, and vice versa.
Despite Sarah’s role as the novel’s protagonist, her sister Maya overshadows her throughout the story. Maya is consistently selfish, manipulative, and violent; she ruins Philip’s life and destroys his relationship with Sarah. Her singing career is mildly successful; she makes her fortune by selling real estate. But it is her cruelty and failure that make her an interesting character, combined with the fact that Maya, a middle-aged woman, has never been able to properly imitate her idol, Rita Hayworth, let alone mimic her career arc. Sarah lacks agency as a character, and it is this that makes her less interesting; she responds passively to Maya’s continuous violence towards her and Philip, and she cannot effectively communicate with either of them or reveal to Philip that they have a child. But it is this that makes the novel more “realistic,” for these characters are flawed and confused—they’re not witty, and they often act like they’re still in their twenties. Despite my frustration with the qualities that made them more realistic, the novel was entertaining and suspenseful—mainly because of Maya’s antics—and the drama moved the story forward and kept me reading.
Factor intends to continue her series with the novel that connects The Mercury Fountain and Love Maps, which will focus on Sarah’s parents and their life in the circus during WWII. Sarah’s parents were intriguing characters in Love Maps, but we learned little about them other than that they were adventurous, secretive, and died in a plane crash. It seems that Factor has left us the best for last: her third novel promises to be much more ambitious, and even more entertaining than her first two novels—after all, she has been mulling over its contents for more than twenty years.