When I read Enchanted Islands by award-winning author Allison Amend, I didn’t realize I had previously read a novel by her that I loved, A Nearly Perfect Copy (link to my review at the end of this review). I loved Enchanted Islands every bit as much. Not realizing I had read anything by her, I found myself wondering why I hadn’t discovered this author before…talk about a head-desk moment when I realized I had. These novels are so different from each other that hopefully I can be forgiven that brain fart moment.
Enchanted Islands is fiction but it’s based on memoirs written by Frances Conway, chronicling her life with her husband as World War II spies stationed on the Galapagos Islands, of all places. Nobody could make that kind of stuff up and have it be believable; however, apparently the U.S. actually had spies stationed there during the war…go figure. This is not, however, just a story about people living among Darwin’s evolutionary creatures in a jungle setting. It is a story about relationships, deep and often dark secrets, survival and hope. At its heart, it is also very much a fish out of water story. And this new tale from Ms. Amend is filled with layers and layers to uncover, making for a riveting story. Should you read it?
Frances Francowski was born to first generation immigrants in Duluth, Minnesota in 1882. She’s very aware of how different she is from the girls around her, girls whose families have been in the U.S. for a long time. Her best friend is Rosalie Mendel, a girl with spunk and courage – a girl who comes from privilege and seems to have everything going for her. Frances would love to be Rosalie, if only she had the courage. Instead, she becomes Rosalie’s supportive friend and co-conspirator. What she doesn’t know is that Rosalie’s life isn’t anywhere near as wonderful as it looks from the outside.
When they’re only fifteen, Rosalie decides she can’t live with her family anymore so she hatches a plan to escape. She and Frances will run away to the big city, to Chicago. There she will become a famous actress or something else terribly exciting and exotic, and they will be wealthy. Rosalie firmly believes it will be a piece of cake and she convinces the more conservative Frances they can do it. To be honest, it doesn’t take a lot of convincing because Frances has already seen how her life will turn out if she stays in Duluth, and she can’t wait to get away from that humdrum existence. Of course, things don’t work out at all the way Rosalie’s fantasies depicted. It isn’t long before Rosalie does something Frances can’t forgive and they part ways.
Frances takes a more practical approach to life than Rosalie ever did, gets herself trained as a top-notch secretarial assistant and becomes a career woman. She has never felt she was the kind of beautiful woman Rosalie was, who could live on charm alone, so Frances knows she must depend on herself for her financial well-being. She’s quite smart and is realistic bordering on pessimistic about her marriage prospects, which she believes are slim to none. It’s not that she doesn’t want to meet someone theoretically – it’s just that she doesn’t view it as a very realistic possibility.
Eventually, Frances goes to work for Naval Intelligence in San Francisco and becomes an invaluable asset there. She’s dependable, efficient, and conscientious – just what Naval Intelligence values most in its staff. She’s intrigued by the field intelligence work being done and by the officers who do it. Secretly, she’s always wanted to be given the opportunity to do that kind of work but she knows she doesn’t fit the type and probably doesn’t have the courage to be a spy. And then something happens…
Frances is called in one day and introduced to Ainslie Conway, one of the office’s top field agents. Ainslie is constantly in demand for operations all over the world, but he’s being given a new critical assignment and it’s quite different from his normal ones. This assignment requires that he be married, and Naval Intelligence has decided that Frances would make the perfect candidate for his wife…a marriage of convenience only…strictly business.
Talk about a backward compliment. Ainsley is quite handsome and any woman would probably jump at the chance to marry him…so why isn’t he married already? Is it only because of his job or is there another reason? Frances has recently reconnected with Rosalie, who’s married and living in San Francisco. She envies Rosalie her family and life, and can’t believe Rosalie still seems to have everything Frances doesn’t have. Frances will get to marry Ainsley, a man Rosalie will drool over, but it won’t be a marriage based on love – just business. And Frances will get her big break to become a field agent – a spy – something she has wanted for some time. So why does it feel like she’s been handed the booby prize?
Oh, and there’s another minor detail – Frances and Ainsley will have to convince everyone that they’re so in love that they’ve decided to spend their first year of marriage literally on a desert island, on Floreanna, an island in the Galapagos chain of islands – just as World War II is getting nasty. Right…like that’s going to be believable to anyone who really knows them. But maybe that’s the key to making this work: Both of them are such private people that even the people closest to them don’t really know them that well.
It seems very odd to Frances that they are being posted to Floreanna, at least until they get there. The few people on the island appear to be German and have odd reasons for being there – reasons that don’t make much more sense than Ainsley and Frances’ do. Floreanna is not a place anyone would choose to live if they didn’t have strong incentive to be there – or a strong incentive to hide away from the world.
The question is why these people are here, and whether they are the spies Naval Intelligence believes them to be. What secrets are they hiding? Can anyone be trusted? Can Frances and Ainsley even survive if they can’t trust anyone in this desolate and harsh environment?
It’s important to keep in mind that, although Enchanted Islands is inspired by Frances Conway’s memoirs, it is completely fiction. The storyline is loosely based on real events; however, the author is quite open about having invented motivations, emotions, and secrets from whole cloth. That said, certain story elements do lend themselves to her interpretation based on Ainsley being referred to as a confirmed bachelor and Frances being referred to as a spinster. Whether there’s any basis to that or not is something else again.
Another thing I want to call out is that this is a story about human relationships and how they are affected by the era in which people live and their circumstances. Naval Intelligence, World War II, and the Galapagos Islands are vehicles through which the story is told – this is a story about people, not about those three vehicles. Do they factor into the story and provide important elements? Yes, and it’s the people who are important; their lives and how their secrets affect their lives. Our secrets and how they eat at us are always our undoing in our lives…or, as therapists say, “Our secrets makes us sick.”
Enchanted Islands is a fascinating study in human nature. It looks at how far we will go to protect ourselves and those we care about…and how quickly the veneer of civilization can break down in extreme circumstances. It is a cautionary tale and a tale of hope, all at the same time…a story with many layers. I was riveted by it. Allison Amend’s writing style flows so beautifully that I was captivated from beginning to end. I know this novel won’t be for everyone; however, I’m recommending it anyway.
Upcoming Author Appearances, Readings & Book Signings:
June 2, 2016 at 7pm-8pm at The Book Cellar (book launch) in Chicago, Illinois
June 6, 2016 at 6:30pm-7:30pm at The Book Stall in Winnetka, Illinois
June 11, 2016 at 2pm-3pm at Minor Memorial Library in Roxbury, Connecticut
June 18, 2016 at 7pm-8pm at KGB Bar in New York City
July 17, 2016 at 5pm-7pm at BookBar in Denver, Colorado
July 18, 2016 at 7pm-8pm at Bookworm in Edwards, Colorado
August 8, 2016 at 7pm-8pm at Book Passage in Corte Madera, California
Can’t wait to read it? Enchanted Islands is available in all formats from your favorite online bookseller. Just click on the link below and you can have it to read immediately.
I’d love to get your comments on Enchanted Islands, Allison Amend and/or her other work, and/or this review! Click here to read our review of A Nearly Perfect Copy.