A coming-of-age novel that works very hard to charm.
T.S. Spivet makes maps: of his bedroom, of his dreams, of his sister shucking corn on the front porch. T.S. is precocious, having established a considerable reputation by the age of 12. His career, however, is a secret from his parents, a taciturn rancher and an entomologist T.S. calls “Dr. Clair.” So when the Smithsonian wants to give him a prestigious award for his work, T.S. declines the honor. Out on the ranch with his cowboy father, though, trying to fill the place in his family left by the death of his more rustic brother, T.S. has an epiphany: He is not like his father; he does not belong in Montana. So he hops a freight train and heads out across America. That T.S. learns a lot—about himself, his family and the world beyond his boyhood home—should go without saying. In its essence, this is an oft-told story, and the particular brand of quirkiness Larsen employs has become quite familiar too. The most distinctive feature here is the marginalia: Pages are bordered with T.S.’s charts, diagrams and explanatory comments. Reaction to the novel will, one suspects, be mixed. Those who are as scientifically minded as the protagonist will be irritated by the details Larsen gets wrong. It’s jarring to read that the Spivet family has a photo of Linnaeus hanging in their home, since the father of modern taxonomy died in 1778. More persistently troubling is the fact that T.S. is characterized throughout as a cartographer, but most of his annotated illustrations fall well outside the standard definition of cartography. Not all drawings are maps. Readers used to the textual trickery of David Foster Wallace or Mark Z. Danielewski are likely to find T.S.’s pictures and musings merely precious. But there’s certainly an audience for heartfelt whimsy, and for an easy read that appears to be smart.
Only sales will tell if Larsen’s debut was worth the hefty advance paid by the publisher.