Maps of Our Spectacular Bodies by Maddie Mortimer Review

📖 GenreLit Fic, Contemporary, Adult
📃 Number of Pages448 pages
🪴 Average Goodreads Rating3.99 ⭐
🌻 My Rating4.5⭐

What is Maps of Our Spectacular Bodies About?

Maps of Our Spectacular Bodies by Maddie Mortimer is a novel about a woman whose cancer returns, and so does her past. It’s a story about love in all of its forms, about growing up and growing old, about religion and faith,  forgiveness, mothers and their daughters, and men who sail through their lives.

I’ve always avoided books about cancer as much as possible — so much so that I never even read The Fault in Our Stars, and I was a teenager when it was at the height of popularity. The thing with cancer is, that it was such a big boogeyman in my real life, I couldn’t stand it invading my safe space.

My grandfather, whom I was incredibly close with, died of cancer when I was thirteen, and my mother got sick from it just half a year later. I was terrified.

So over the years (I am almost thirty now), I simply skipped all cancer books, despite their popularity, and I never saw it as “avoiding my triggers”, but just as a preference. That is, until recently, when I picked up Maddie Mortimer’s debut novel. 

And I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because the ages and relationships almost mirror my own experiences. Maybe it’s because of the cancer’s perspective. Maybe I was just ready to start healing that little girl in me instead of protecting her.  Who knows. 

But, I did read Maps of Our Spectacular Bodies. And I have to say that I liked it — maybe not all of it, but certainly a good part — and of course, it made me cry. 

Characterisation

There is a full cast of characters in this book, and in most cases, they feel like real people. She succeeded in making them feel like real people, flaws and all, without leaning into the cliches of these types of books. Lia has cancer, sure, but she’s also not a saint, and there will be many moments where you won’t like her. 

My favorite character would probably be Lia’s mother — the mother-daughter dynamic was so interesting, and I would have liked to see more of that. The husband feels fleshed out as well, though he wasn’t the most entertaining person in this book. 

However, the daughter and the best friend felt a bit off. The daughter is very clearly not a twelve-year-old, and she comes off as a manic pixie girl instead of a real person. The same goes for the friend. 

There are some characters from the past, like Lia’s father, and her old boyfriend Matthew. Now, a lot of this story is about Matthew. And I don’t quite see why. I understand that there was a need to go into Lia’s past to understand her present, but so much time was spent with Matthew that it was unnecessary. 

And if he was fleshed out well, it would be fine — but Matthew had to bend and deform to suit the plot and the lesson Lia needed to learn at the time. He was the bad guy, but also not.

Cancer as a character 

Finally, we arrive at what is probably my least favorite character in history — the cancer. In this book (fair warning), you get an entire POV of Lia’s cancer. This is probably one of the elements that drew me into this book, but it’s also one of the biggest reasons I didn’t like it. 

It starts well enough. The cancer is creepy and ominous. But then it devolves into absurdity that is hard to read. And I don’t mean that it’s emotionally hard, but more that it doesn’t make any sense and doesn’t add anything to the story. 

I get that it’s a thing that differentiates this novel from all others on the same topic, but it also weakens the story. 

Maps of Our Spectacular Bodies by Maddie Mortimer

Writing Style

One thing you certainly can’t complain about is the writing. In a word, it’s sublime. Lyrical, but not sentimental. Immersive and genuine. You almost feel like you’re one of the people fighting for Lia’s life, not just an observer. 

The points of view of human characters, whether past or present, are written in a regular, simple font. But the cancer chapters are written in bold font which slowly starts invading Lia’s chapters until it completely takes over. The cancer’s voice becomes Lia’s voice, the boundaries between the two break, and it’s a heartbreaking moment — this is also the point when cancer becomes more coherent and it adds something to the story. 

Mortimer also experiments with typography, which is relatively new to me, and I didn’t mind it. It fits well into the story, especially with Lia’s interest in words and what they sound like. 

Maps of Our Spectacular Bodies by Maddie Mortimer

Plot and Pacing 

Maps of Our Spectacular Bodies by Maddie Mortimer is a character-driven book so the plot takes a backseat, really. We follow Lia in the past and the present — her struggles as a young girl, her first loves and heartbreaks, and then her struggle with cancer, and efforts to be a good mother, wife, and daughter. 

The past and present sections were interwoven in a way that wasn’t obtrusive. Something would happen in the present that would make Lia or one of the other characters think about the past, and the past situations usually mirrored or better explained the present.

It’s a slow-paced book, but addictive and gripping, so you won’t be bored at any point. 

Themes

One of the main themes of this book, and one I cared most about, is mother-daughter relationships. Lia has a complicated relationship with her own mother — they were never close, but with cancer coming back, the relationship changes. I loved the scenes where they interacted, and I wish there was more of that. 

Lia is a good mother, close with her own daughter, but not even that relationship is void of strife. Iris, her daughter, is part angry, part devastated that her mother is dying, and it impacts their interactions. Lia feels guilt — that she’s dying and leaving Iris, that she didn’t give her a sibling to share the suffering with, a general guilt that all mothers feel no matter what. 

Religion

God is also a big part of the story. Lia is a vicar’s daughter, and it colors all her life experiences. She feels the absence of God, while her first love Matthew, feels an abundance of God in everything. Her relationship with God is almost mimicked by her relationship with Matthew — he’s more absent from her life than present, she feels her body belongs to him, just like her parents believe her body belongs to God. 

Forgiveness

Another major theme is forgiveness. Lia blames herself for the cancer — she believes that she could have done something to prevent it, and that she could have been better. Her husband feels guilt about wanting the company of a younger woman, though Lia made him seek it out in the first place. Lia’s mother feels guilt that she didn’t prevent Matthew, that she wasn’t a better mother. And all of these characters struggle to forgive themselves. By the end, I believe they do, but it’s a harrowing process. 

Obviously, it’s also about grief. Lia (and everyone around her) knows she’s going to die, so the grieving begins almost on the first page.  

Maps of our spectacular bodies by Maddie Mortimer

Maps of Our Spectacular Bodies by Maddie Mortimer: Bottom Line

I don’t have many book recommendations for this one — as I said, I avoided books about cancer for the longest time. But if you’re interested in books similar to Maps of Our Spectacular Bodies, you’ll probably find Max Porter’s Grief is a Thing With Feathers or Lanny very interesting. They play with typography in the same way and are obviously about grief. 

Book recs aside, I truly loved this one (and it deserves an honorary mention on my list of favorites). It broke my heart and made me question some things in my own life. Maybe it even ended up helping me better understand what I was feeling at the time my mother was sick. It was such a confusing time for me, that I think I never got to heal from it properly. This book opened my eyes to the struggles my mom went through and made me remember some of what I went through at the time. And yes, I cried a lot at the end, and at various times in the middle — be warned, it will make you cry too! 

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