In the prologue of her debut novel, The Map That Leads to You, J.P. Menninger describes perfectly the feelings of three friends, part of a fresh batch of college graduates, whose hopes and excitement at being finally on their way to independence and adulthood, sit side by side with a slight fear of newfound responsibility. A picture is taken, freezing the moment in time.
One moment in four years. It captures everything. In a matter of weeks, you will all be in Europe for what used to be called the grand tour; you will be traveling and kicking ass all across the old countries, but for now, in this instant, you are on the verge of everything. And your mother saw it, and caught it, and you cannot glance even once at that picture without knowing your three hearts are linked together and that in a crazy world each of you has two things— two pure and limitless things— that she can count on for today and every day forward.
And Europe is where this story truly starts, on a crowded and stifling train to Amsterdam. Heather, Monninger’s young traveler, dowses herself in the mood of an intellectual’s journey by reading Hemingway on her iPad. This smells of predictable platitude, the college graduate on an European trip reliving The Sun Also Rises, but Monninger knows this, and so does Heather. It’s perhaps a slight insight into her slight naiveté and how dangerously close to conformity.
But then Heather meets Jack, the impossibly handsome tall guy that takes Heather’s head and loins out for a spin the very moment their eyes lock. She objectively recognizes the futility of falling for someone she just met on a train in a foreign country, but there is something about Jack that mirrors her desire to live through experiences, but at the same time testing her notions of security and what she thinks she wants in life.
As the train moves towards Amsterdam, Jack and Heather fall into a pattern of humorous banter, that at times can become a tad irritating. Jack is the proverbial free-spirited bohemian, who left a career in journalism to follow his grandfather’s footsteps across Europe à la Karouac, his beatnik namesake, with a leather bound journal as a map. We almost expect him to blurt out a quote from On the Road, such as: “Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road.” But no, Jack prefers to follow Heather and Hemingway, and it’s undeniable that Papa is there for the ride. Heather truly doesn’t know what to make of Jack at times, but recognizes in him a freedom she wants for herself but stubbornly refuses to acknowledge.
Heather’s best friends and her companions on this European journey, Amy and Constance, are as different from Heather as they are from each other. Constance is the serious but beautiful scholar, who is fascinated by religious icons and texts, who sees Europe as a learning curve. Amy is the wild one, libertine party goer who doesn’t miss a beat, club or random guy on sight. This ultimately costs her an early journey back home, leaving Constance and Heather with Jack and his Aussie friend Raef, who has begun to fall for Constance already.
The Map That Leads to You could easily be another coming-of-age syrupy novel, but Monninger ups the stakes with glimpses that there may be more to Jack’s motivations behind the journey. As the group moves from Amsterdam, to Berlin, to Prague and then eventually to Paris, aspects of Jack’s life start revealing themselves. However, Heather still can’t quite decipher his adverse reactions to her future life in New York City and her new job as an investor for Bank of America. After a fencing lesson that leads to an erotic entanglement against a wall, and arguments that threaten to undo their rapid liaison, Jack unexpectedly reveals his plan of going to New York, much to Heather’s surprise.
And it’s here where Monninger delivers an unexpected blow, because as Constance decides to bail on her planned post-college life and fly with Raef to Australia, Heather and Jack make their way to Charles de Gaulle, in love and in expectation of whatever awaits them in New York. But as Jack excuses himself for a quick trip to the men’s room, and Heather distracts herself on her iPad, he never comes back. Heather’s frantic search for Jack in Charles de Gaulle is one of the most emotional scenes in the book, and we can feel her despair and disbelief in the face of Jack’s abandonment: “I did not permit myself the luxury of searching the faces of my fellow passengers for Jack. I didn’t pass any longing looks toward the front of the plane. He was not coming; he did not come; he did not want me after all.”
Heather has no choice but to board the plane to New York alone, with only Jack’s grandfather’s journal which he has strangely left behind. Her visceral reaction is to ask the flight attendant to throw it out, only to immediately regret it and request her assistance to dig it out of the trash again.
The second half of the novel is written at a slower pace. We witness every phase of Heather’s life upon her return and her desperation to somehow live and forget Jack. But every date is a disaster, and Heather begins to rely heavily on both work and drinking to pass the days without thinking of “He-Who-Will-Not-Be-Named.” Constance and Amy try to help, but Constance’s own happiness and Amy’s growing maturity seem to get in Heather’s way of feeling some sort of relief in the face of being unceremoniously abandoned by the man she thought was her “one.”
As the novel moves on, and Heather realizes that the only way to get closure is to find an explanation, we get closer to knowing the reason for Jack leaving. The end makes for a shocking revelation, but Monninger proves that when love is real hope may not be far behind.