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.