Zoe Tussler is a young woman on a roller coaster of thoughts, ideas and emotions, and in “Miss Portland” the roller coaster takes her to the end of the ride – or so she thinks – in Portland.

Portland, Maine, of course – not “the other Portland.” David Ebenbach’s other books, poetry and short stories, stretch out across the Midwest; this, his first novel, is firmly rooted in Maine. With thoughtful name-dropping of places, but also with knowing descriptions of the area itself, the story makes the Forest City so tangible as to almost be one of the characters.

Zoe arrives in Portland looking to make a fresh start. At age 34, she’s lived through enough stress to fill a lifetime. Zoe has bipolar disorder, which for her means the “internal compass” isn’t always reliable. When she’s manic, she can feel so on top of the world that any decisions she needs to make, she makes with complete certainty – even if they aren’t especially good decisions.

Zoe’s impulsiveness has led her to places she thought would be healing, like a commune that turned out to be populated with men who thought they were owed whatever they wanted. Another time it was mystical Judaism, the following of which eventually meant shutting everyone else out of her life.

The employment world hadn’t yielded any satisfaction either, with Zoe bouncing from job to job. Temporary positions – “the foster care of the employment world” – followed by work she found meaningless. The manic times would eventually give way – either to hospitalization in a psychiatric ward, or into the depressive side of the bipolar disorder. Then she would shut down – emotionally, mentally, physically – and often end up back in the hospital.

Maine, though, feels different. She remembers coming for a vacation when she was younger, how fresh the air felt. It felt safe. It’s also different, she thinks, because she’s not going merely to a place, but to a person.

Gordon – “Gordy” – is a yoga instructor she met at a meditation retreat in Massachusetts that he facilitated. Gordy radiated wellness, strength, kindness, stability – understanding – all things that Zoe is drawn to. So she quits her job, stops taking her medications, and moves to Maine.

A challenge posed to people in the fictional Zoe’s life – and in the lives of many family members of actual people with bipolar disorder – is helping them to manage the bipolar symptoms while also not trying to close them off from the world. It is difficult, both in the novel and in real life, to encourage someone’s goals and ambitions when you are always trying to gauge whether they are thinking sensibly or if the mania is starting to seep in.

Zoe convinces her parents that this time is different. Gordy welcomes Zoe into his life. He lives in a trailer on his parents’ property, and sees his daughter Taylor on weekends. At some point before the move, the two had talked about finding a way to start a meditation studio of their own, together.

But before long, the reader begins to wonder: Was this a reasonable idea to entertain? Did Gordy really want to start this life with Zoe, or was he swept up in the romance? Was he not the well-balanced person he portrayed himself as? Or did Zoe seize on a casual conversation to make a new life for herself before anyone else was on board?

Ebenbach does wonders in capturing the uncertainties, and the ruminating, that comes from new relationships and from trying to work through the thickets of young adulthood. He also makes sense of how bipolar disorder can shift everything, back and forth, like trying to balance a tray full of dishes while walking on the deck of a boat beset by a storm.

Zoe’s predicament is fully fleshed – nothing that unfolds, not Gordy’s eventual betrayal, or her solutions to the problems created, can be blamed squarely on her having bipolar disorder, or on Gordy, or on any one person or thing. Ebenbach makes it clear that Zoe’s challenges as she experiences them can be unique, but the challenges themselves are ones we all face.

The answers Zoe reaches aren’t easy ones, or complete ones, but they take her story forward into a different understanding of her world. It’s a victory, as much as we can hope for, and Ebenbach’s telling of it is a victory all its own.

Matthew Tiffany is a mental health counselor and writer whose work has appeared in the Star Tribune, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Kansas City Star, Barnes & Noble Book Review and many other publications. He has always lived in Maine.