Enchant­ed Islands

  • Review
May 3, 2016

Like her debut, Sta­tions West, Alli­son Amend’s fourth nov­el tells the sto­ry of Jew­ish immi­grants set­ting off into unknown ter­ri­to­ry. But in this sto­ry, one of the char­ac­ters ends up in a most unex­pect­ed and remote place: the Gala­pa­gos Islands, also known as the Enchant­ed Islands. Inspired by the diaries of Frances Con­roy, Amend places a fair­ly ordi­nary Jew­ish woman into a world of intrigue on per­haps the most far-flung out­post of World War II. The chal­lenges that she faces and the truths she learns there form the core of this ambi­tious book.

Frances Frankows­ki, born to immi­grant par­ents in Duluth, befriends a girl at school named Ros­alie. Ros­alie is in many ways the oppo­site of Frances: flir­ta­tious and impetu­ous where­as Frances is plain and book­ish; rich and self-con­fi­dent where­as Frances is poor and unas­sured. But the two bal­ance each oth­er out in ways that begin as bond­ing in their youth and morph into essen­tial in old age. Faced with seri­ous prob­lems in their homes, the two-fif­teen-year-olds con­spire to leave Min­neso­ta for Chica­go, where they scrape by on their wits and tal­ents. Even­tu­al­ly, a falling-out over a boy dri­ves the friends apart for a while.

Frances makes her way to San Fran­cis­co, where she becomes a sec­re­tary for the Navy and is set up” in mar­riage to the dash­ing Ainslie Con­way, an intel­li­gence offi­cer who needs some­one to pose as his wife for a mis­sion to the Gala­pa­gos. In oth­er words, unas­sum­ing Frances becomes a spy tasked with keep­ing tabs on Ger­man oper­a­tives on a small remote island. Here Frances finds the bio­log­i­cal diver­si­ty that entranced Dar­win; the small place becomes an emo­tion­al and phys­i­cal cal­dron for Frances, too. She bat­tles the real­i­ties of liv­ing like a cave woman,” but also a grow­ing under­stand­ing of the depths of lone­li­ness and the strength of her own character.

While Amend’s writ­ing is most­ly deli­cious, Frances’ voice as the nar­ra­tor some­times falls short. It’s hard to believe that after learn­ing Rosalie’s secrets, for exam­ple, Frances would be as slow as she is to under­stand her own husband’s.

There’s more than enough plot in this book to make it a page-turn­er and enough jour­ney­ing in this book to make it a trav­el tale. But in the end, Amend has not writ­ten a trav­el sto­ry or a thriller. She has com­posed a rich work of fic­tion about secrets and friend­ship, about loy­al­ty and duty.

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