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Her Fine Eyes

Caustic reviews of YA books I adore. 

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On the Island

On the Island - Tracey Garvis-Graves

***Note: this review assumes that you've read the book.***


One-sentence summary: A problematic, sweet, not terribly lyrical (and minimally researched) romance novel that is something you gobble up mostly because of the upbeat main characters and the survival story.


I was duped! A few of my best online blogger friends recommended this book to me. I thought, because of their usual reading habits--and because they know me!--that On the Island would be a somewhat literary novel burdened with an unfortunate fluffy cover. But make no mistake: this is a romance novel, complete with not only a happily-every-after, but a happily-ever-beginning and a happily-ever-middle, too. The only sad result of the remote-island stranding of T.J. and Anna is that Anna parents died while she was away.  


The story. It's 2001, and thirty-year-old Anna Emerson has been in an eight-year relationship that's going nowhere. She pines for marriage and babies, but her boyfriend just won't propose. (Seriously, is this a thing still? Why should a woman wait to be asked?) Anna is a high school English teacher (more about that later) who's offered the summer job of tutoring a sixteen-year-old boy, T.J. Callahan, who is behind in school because he was sick with Hodgkin's lymphoma (he's now in remission). The Callahan family is spending the summer in the Maldives, and Anna and T.J. travel together to meet them and begin their studies. On the last leg of their journey, the pilot of their sea plane suffers a heart attack, and they crash-land in the water. Anna and T.J. make it to a nearby island and wait for rescue planes that never arrive. Working together, they gradually learn to provide water, shelter, fire, and food for themselves, and each saves the other's life on a couple of occasions. As T.J. grows into a man, they slowly fall in love. They have sex for the first time when T.J. is almost nineteen. When the 2005 tsunami hits south Asia, their island is destroyed and they are washed into the ocean, which paradoxically signals their rescue. Back in Chicago, they try to stay committed to each other, despite the shaming they receive by the media and their acquaintances, but Anna eventually forces T.J. away, wanting him to experience all the things he missed while he was on the island. They long for each other, and finally get back together. In the epilogue we see that they're married with twins and another on the way, because thankfully T.J. banked his sperm when he was fifteen and undergoing chemotherapy.  


You must suspend your disbelief. This is a kind of drawn-out wish-fulfillment book. Anna needs a devoted husband and babies, and the island is the long-con way that she achieves both. Try not to think about the facts of the crash and survival--it might ruin your enjoyment. But the one dubious fact I just kept getting stuck on was that Anna was an English teacher. I'm a publishing nerd, with a prejudice for all things literary, and even I know the family would have hired someone who could get T.J. caught up on math and science. It would have been so simple to make her a quant person, since they never ended up studying anything anyway.


Research. I stumbled over a few things:


--Does breadfruit produce copious fruit all year round? Wikipedia seems to think it has a season (for instance, the ripening season in Hawaii, which is close to the latitude of the Maldives, is July through February). Maybe the climate is perfect for year-round breadfruit on their island? Maybe they ate unripe fruit the rest of the time? Who knows, but I worried about that. 


--I do know that dengue hemorrhagic fever is a virus that has only human hosts or primate hosts. There were no primates on Anna and T.J.'s island. Where the heck did that mosquito get infected? Did it blow over from another island?


--Wouldn't two boxes of tampons that sank in the ocean and then bobbed to shore weeks later be so soaked that they'd swell and be useless? Anna didn't end up needing them, but I'd think even plastic-wrapped OB tampons would be destroyed. The strings could be useful, though, and no one mentioned that.


--Anna tells T.J. he's probably going to have to get a GED. First of all, I found it incredible that a boy of sixteen who goes to a fancy private school doesn't know what a GED is, but then Anna gave him the wrong answer. "GED" stands for general education development (not "diploma").


--I was very frustrated by the fact that neither of them thought to use leaves to capture water or funnel it into their mouths before they found the bottle, but resorted to the stagnant pond first. Also, before they burned her hair to shorten it, wouldn't they have taken out a blade from the disposable shavers first, and used that? And finally, is it far-fetched of me to wonder why they didn't try to tie anything to one of the dolphins, in the hope the dolphins might spend time in inhabited waters, given how tame they were? Have I watched too many Disney movies?


--At least once, Ms. Graves slipped up and had the characters say something like, "Two hours later..." (They have no watches.)


The writing. This reads like an unprofessional debut. The language is clunky, flat, and not descriptive. "His voice had a desperation that matched my own emotional state." There's also a second half to the story that's unexpected, involving Anna's work at a homeless shelter. It doesn't quite fit in, thematically, and had no precedent, so it adds to that feeling of "first this, then that." (See below.)


Too neatly tied up. The book is just a series of "first we faced this obstacle, and here is how we solved it; then we faced that; next another thing..." But more objectionable is the way many problems are solved by coincidence or by deus ex machina. For instance, Anna wants babies, but she certainly shouldn't get pregnant on the island (where they're barely surviving). No worries, T.J. is sterile! But wait, when they get off the island she wants babies, remember? No problem! T.J. froze his sperm! There's a shark, but the dolphins save them! They're dying of thirst, and there's T.J.'s backpack, with a bottle of water, washing on shore! Anna has packed months and months worth of shampoo and toothpaste, two hats, two pair of sunglasses...because they don't sell it on a resort island? Huh? It was also so damned lucky the suitcase washed ashore. (But wait, didn't the airline agent check her bags all the way through, and didn't they miss the flight they were supposed to be on? How did those bags get on the sea plane?) Let's not even talk about the fact that the raft washed up, with a water collector, a first-aid kit, and a screened canopy.


Relentlessly inoffensive. Part of the excessive optimism and lack of depth of this book stems from the careful way the author tried to remove any of the squickiness of Anna's and T.J.'s relationship--she "scrubbed away" anything that could be deemed unseemly, and that made it a much less interesting story. T.J. was interested in Anna immediately, and devoted to her. Would Anna have waited so long to become intimate with him, given how emotionally intimate they were for so long, and how they depended on each other for company? Ms. Graves sets everything up to be as unobjectionable as possible, which makes the story so darned bland, and loses the opportunity to say something interesting about social mores, and human feelings. Her artificial construct is also so obvious, you can see her hand throughout: 1. T.J. is not a virgin (he had sex with a girl who's now dead of leukemia, which coincidentally also allows Anna to consider him an "old soul'); 2. Anna wasn't T.J.'s teacher before this plane trip, she had been hired after an application and one interview, so there's no abuse of authority; Anna and T.J. had sex when he was of legal consenting age, by any state's definition; 3. T.J. is written as a mature adult almost immediately--caring, resourceful, thoughtful, and devoted. There's only one scene that shows any juvenile behavior on his part (the farting scene), and Anna seems to be at about that maturity level anyway. The author also strives to have the post-rescue "real-world" hurdles between them addresses as cleanly as possible: T.J. has sex with one other woman, Alex, before he and Anna get back together (allowing us to think, okay, he has experienced three women now--he can embark on his marriage with Anna) but don't think less of him--he didn't really enjoy that one-night stand, and politely informs Alex that he won't be calling her again.
In sum. Wow, don't write a blog post about this book. It will lower it in your memory from a fun, uplifting, quick beach read to a frustrating, pandering novel with clunky writing that missed its chance to say anything complex about human relationships.