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The Islanders

September 8, 2019

I picked up The Islanders, by Meg Mitchell Moore, in the college bookstore while waiting for someone, and read a few pages. They stuck with me, and so I went to the library looking for a copy. The library didn’t have it, so after putting in a request for them to acquire it I found myself back in the bookstore unable to resist finding out more of what happens.

The novel starts out with an ominous prologue and then takes us back “two months ago, June” to Anthony’s viewpoint, followed by Joy’s, followed by Lu’s, and then Anthony’s again. I felt a little irritable about this, as I object to being switched around just as I’m starting to get interested in someone’s story. Also I wasn’t sure if I liked the writing—is it stupid or will it eventually seem charming to read sentences like “he spent three thousand dollars on four items. (Not really, but it felt like it.)”? The answer is that the author cuts it out; the writing gets less obvious and self-indulgent after that particularly low point. Soon I got hooked on more than one story, and the switching increasingly made sense. Something was building, a complete picture from three different points of view.

Anthony has left his wife, who seems to be sleeping with someone else on their “Avery bed” (I looked this up, but unlike my revelation about what a “Viking kitchen” is, I didn’t find out about a particular kind of expensive bed). He misses his 4-year-old son, Max. Joy is a single mother to a 13-year-old daughter and manages a bakery. Lu has an often-absent husband, two little boys, and a secret cooking blog which is making money (in the world of this novel, all you have to do to get a book contract is write a blog and keep plugging away at it). All these characters meet on Block Island, which is a real place; part of the state of Rhode Island.

Joy’s bakery specializes in a regional delicacy called “whoopie pies” (also claimed by Maine and Pennsylvania, as she notes) and it is called “Joy Bombs” after what her brother said when he first tried one: “these things are amazing. They’re like little joy bombs.” Her daughter is now 13, and Joy thinks what all mothers think when their daughters are 13 and start spending more time with friends, like Maggie’s friend Riley: “for years and years it had been the two of them against the world….Now talking to Maggie was like walking through a minefield. No, it was worse—it was like walking through a minefield at night when someone had taken your night-vision goggles and given them to Riley because they looked better on her.”

Lu’s cooking blog is called “Dinner by Dad,” and in it she pretends to be the father of two. When she feeds her two sons charred broccoli and vegetable lasagna and find “they’d done a passable job on the broccoli but had made a poor showing with the lasagna” she thinks that the fictional sons “were much more reliable vegetable eaters.” She is raising the two boys mostly on her own while her husband Jeremy, a doctor, is at work. When the kids go into the living room and turn on the tv after dinner, she thinks “Jeremy would have disapproved of television time immediately after dinner. He wanted them to play wholesome board games, but he was never here to play them.” (As a mother who stayed home much of the time while my two children were growing up, I feel the need to point out that any adult who has tried playing Candyland or Chutes and Ladders with two children for any length of time or on a regular basis might choose another adjective besides “wholesome.”)

Anthony, who has had a glamorous marriage and a fancy house and then had the expectations of the world turned away from him, is falling in love with Joy because she’s the first person to ever ask him what his favorite movie was as a kid. Joy falls in love with Anthony despite her worry that she can’t be both an independent woman and in love.

Lu is the straightest thinker of the bunch. She knows what she wants and goes for it. When she thinks about her mother telling her to enjoy her kids while they’re young—you know, what everyone says to mothers: “they won’t be young forever, it goes so fast”—she thinks “but the career years go by fast too….Those are also finite. All of it goes by too fast, life goes by too fast. By the time Chase was off to college she’d be—well, old. Older. Old. Over fifty. She’d be tired. She’d definitely be out of touch. She’d have no connections; she’d be starting from scratch.” When her husband asks “don’t you think I would like more time with the boys? Don’t you think I would love the luxury—and let’s call it what it is, it’s a luxury—of these long summer days at the beach with my boys instead of being inside a hospital all of the time?” Lu answers “No….I’m not sure you would” and thinks “Full time family time was one of those things that sound lovely in the abstract, but wait until Chase cut his foot on a clamshell and then got sand in the cut and had to be carried back to the house. Wait until Sebastian came home from a birthday party high on cupcakes and Capri Sun and turned into a wet puddle of emotions.” She says “you wouldn’t be you without your work to make you complete, and nobody expects that you would be.”

What each partner in a marriage contributes to their life’s work turns out to be a theme of this novel: “who got a career, who didn’t, and what you did with yours once you had it—these were all their own kind of power plays.” The different perspectives show us all of these fictional people sorting that out, giving the reader a perspective it’s harder to assemble in real life.

Although I loved this novel, I did not love that all the independent women build careers around cooking. Maybe I’m reacting to it on top of my weekend, which I spent at Hendrix College, reading a character called Anni in a play by John Haman entitled Pie Town. It features strong women characters (the audience said so at the “talk back” afterwards) but even the one who becomes an author writes a book about pie. Some women do things other than cook and make it pay, and I’d like to see a few more of those in fiction.


2 Comments leave one →
  1. September 8, 2019 5:21 pm

    I do love strong female characters, even when they cook.

    • September 8, 2019 7:55 pm

      I agree, but I wish someone would think up some strong female characters who do something–anything–else!

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