The Atlas of Us - Tracy Buchanan

When Louise Fenton flies to Thailand to find her mother, Nora, after the Boxing Day tsunami, she fears the worst when the only trace she can find is her mother’s distinctive bag. In the bag is a beautifully crafted atlas owned by travel journalist Claire Shreve, with her notes and mementos slipped in-between the pages. The journal tells the story of Claire’s struggle to find her place in the world following a life-altering revelation, and a tumultuous love affair. Louise treks across Thailand's scarred landscape, exploring Claire’s atlas to try to make sense of the connection between this woman and the mother she is so desperate to find. As devastated people are beginning to put their lives back together, Louise uncovers the secrets that nearly destroyed Claire and the man she loved – the same secrets her mother has been guarding all these years …




Pulling inspiration from details of the real life 2004 tsunami that devastated Thailand (as well as several other countries), Buchanan crafts a story about a daughter trying to find answers to the disappearance of her estranged mother, Nora. Louise Fenton hasn't spoken to her mother in several years, not since an argument that escalated surprisingly fast, causing them both to fall into silent treatment with each other since. Now Louise has gotten word that her mother was in Thailand when the tsunami hit, so Louise jumps on the first flight available to try to find her mother -- either to reunite and make peace, or to possibly identify the body. Louise is directed toward a body that matches how she described her mother. While there are similarities, something doesn't seem quite right.... especially when a man crumples over the body crying about "Claire." When Louise inquires about this Claire, what the man tells her ends up sending her on a quest  -- as she now has to question that maybe this body is NOT her mother -- to once again seek out her mother's whereabouts and how Claire came to have Nora's belongings (a satchel containing an atlas full of personal letters, photos and other ephemera) on her person.


This essentially makes up the first few chapters. From that point, the storyline flip-flops back and forth between Louise in 2004 and the story of Claire, mostly taking place in the mid-late 1990s. Claire works as a travel writer and a co-editor of a travel magazine. Trying to emotionally regroup after her husband admits to not having his heart in their marriage anymore, Claire takes a writing assignment in Exmoor (UK) where she's working on a piece about a B & B in Exmoor, and its surrounding attractions. Claire strikes up a friendship with Milo, whose odd family owns & operates the B & B. Claire is having a lovely time for a few days until one night when a wedding being held at the inn goes horribly wrong, violence and gunfire breaking out. Milo, having developed feelings for Claire in their short time together, insists she flee the scene before police arrive. Claire reluctantly does leave, going back to the security of her safe if distracted, somewhat inattentive husband. Doesn't work that well though. She can't get Milo or the events of that night out of her mind. Now she has to admit that she's the one with her heart not in her marriage. And just when her husband was starting to show some fire and interest again, dang it! 


After all that, the settings for the plot start jumping all over the place. Claire is tempted to run to Milo and start her life over, but he gets himself into a bit of a legal pickle and for a good bit can't be bothered with emotional declarations. So travel writer Claire goes back to getting her travel on -- UK, Italy, Serbia, Finland, Australia, Dubai (UAE) and of course Thailand. Years pass and life eventually has the paths of Milo & Claire coming together again but is it too late for that life reboot to begin?


Okay, good and bad with this one so let me try to break it down. 


What did work for me -- I liked all the bits about traveling. Made for fun reading to have varied settings at different points in the characters' lives. Also Milo's family -- they were most definitely a crazy bunch -- and I don't mean that kooky kind of crazy soccer moms like to claim when they go for the venti instead of the grande, I mean legit people have died around them crazy. But that thread of instability again made for fun reading, never being quite sure who was going to snap next or how far. I also liked the idea behind the story -- people trying to put the past aside to heal longtime family rifts.


The stuff that was not so great for me -- There were times where the dialogue went a little too saptastic for me. It just seemed too After School Special in the way everyone had the perfect answer for every confession, no one was really stunned by anything, everyone spoke like their dialogue came directly from counseling books. It wasn't all bad all the time, just at times it got clunky and unnatural.


Claire's tendency to bring up her infertility struggles ALL THE TIME. Now don't hate on me, hear me out. I know how heartbreaking it can be to get that news. I've had to sit through that one with my dr myself. I have several friends I've been with as they cry out their hurt. It's not that she talked about it, it was the way she went on ... and on.. and on about how she saw herself as a worthless failure unless she produced a child, how she was sure other people were thinking that, how she takes a moment to pout anytime anyone mentions their children or has their children around.

BUT I do give Buchanan props for that bit about the infertility being a result of Claire catching chlamydia from a guy. I think that's a pretty bold, brave line to throw in there since infertility via STD is a definite reality (I'm speaking generally here -- it's not my reality, but it's definitely a possible cause) but talking about it seems to be shied away from a lot. 

(show spoiler)


On one hand, I get it. I don't have my own children. I know the pity looks she talks about here, the way people make you feel like you're a waste of space because your uterus refuses to make a baby. I understand the hurt but all the talk she did about everything else seeming worthless and how she'd just have to settle for whatever since she couldn't have kids, it got tiring having nearly every chapter go back to that. I just wanted to scream at her go adopt! foster a child! work in an orphanage! find another passion! FFS, not having a child biologically, while sad, is not a damn death sentence. Even near the end, Claire talks about it AGAIN but follows it with "but I've come to accept it" ... and here is where I come in as the tough-love friend and say "Well CLEARLY NOT because we're still freakin' talking about it!" It's okay to not be over it -- one of my dearest friends struggled for years with infertility and miscarriage before she ended up with her two boys and even with two beautiful, adorable, healthy children, she still references the lost one from time to time -- but just be honest. I get so annoyed with cop-out phrases like "But I'm over it" "Doesn't even bother me anymore" when you just spent hour(s) talking about how much it "doesn't" bother you.


{Sidenote: Buchanan in her author afterword writes that much of what Claire describes about her IVF treatments came from Buchanan's own experiences with infertility and IVF. Buchanan also worked as a travel writer, like Claire, so much of the scenic descriptions came from memories of her own travels}.


The places where Buchanan chose to break up Louise's & Claire's storylines drove me crazy. Honestly, much of Claire's story fell a little flat for me. I didn't feel like there was a ton going on beyond a lot of over-sharing convos with people when she had barely just met them or later, when she did know them, too much of the dramatic side-turn stifled cry or the melodramatic fleeing a room in tears. A lot of that, felt like. But whenever something about her story DID start to get a little interesting... CUT! Move to Louise's story. ARRGH! 



Surprisingly, when you would EXPECT Claire to freak out a bit in a scene, THEN she goes all chill. Like a conversation between her and Milo where he admits to once killing a guy, she says "yeah, but you did it to save others." to which, after a pregnant pause, he replies "Right." and then she pretty much just goes to sleep. That response of his would've immediately got my spidey-sense up, telling him "that's a weird response... what are you not saying?! what don't I know?!?!" 


Is it obvious Claire never really grew on me that well? LOL The story itself is actually not bad, I just wish it had better balance. The friendships and family bonds intrigued me but the romances are not all that well developed and are a little too insta for me. I also was a little confused to see the majority of the book written about Claire when the synopsis markets it as the story of a woman (Louise) searching for her missing mother (Nora). In actuality, Louise felt like a background character. Writing from her POV when SO much of the plot centers around Claire made Louise's character seem a bit like a third wheel. 


Not gonna lie, this one was largely a cover buy for me because I could not stop staring at that cover. But I had such high hopes for the plot! Like I said, I didn't hate it but those high hopes were definitely noticeably deflated by story's end. I understand Buchanan's other book, My Sister's Secret, has an edgier, more thriller-esque kind of plot so I'm eager to see if that one strikes my fancy a wee bit more. 




For readers that were possibly too young to remember (or anyone else that doesn't remember) the news reports of the 2004 tsunami (I believe it's now recorded as the worst in history), you can watch a brief clip of raw footage of the waves hitting Thailand HERE. WARNING: It is definitely raw footage with some hard-to-watch footage. Tread carefully if you trigger easily!