Book Review: The Islanders

Apparently, Meg Mitchell Moore had already written three novels before The Captain’s Daughter hit the shelves in 2017, but it took that harbor-oriented story to move her onto my reader’s radar. I gobbled up that book, added it to the list of comparative titles for Ferry to Cooperation Island—and then was gobsmacked a few months ago to see an announcement of Moore’s newest book, The Islanders. Even before I read it, I knew it would be an even better comp for Ferry!

The Islanders by Meg Mitchell Moore

(FYI, “comp” titles—short for either “comparative” or “competitive,” depending on who you ask—are a kind of shorthand for booksellers, and a must-include for authors when promoting their work to agents, publishers, and readers.)

The Islanders takes place on Block Island during a very recent summer and plots the intersecting dramas and secrets of three people—one local, two visiting. The local, Joy, runs “Joy Bombs” (Reinventing the whoopie pie), and is single mom to thirteen year old Maggie. One of the visitors, Lu, is summering on the island because her mother-in-law rented a house for her young family, a gift that stings as much as it pleases. The other visitor, Anthony, has come to Block Island to run away from recent professional and personal implosions. It isn’t clear to anyone how long he’ll stay, which makes him a useful middle-ground between the bookends of “I’ll be here forever” (Joy) and “I’m just here for the summer” (Lu).

What these three characters each notice or take for granted provides a four-wheel drive vehicle for Moore’s exploration of island contrasts. Different personalities are shaken together into a summer salad of fun, dressed with just enough friction (and all those secrets) to keep things moving forward. And because it’s a small community, the many coincidences seem inevitable rather than contrived.

While devouring the story, I kept stepping back to admire Moore’s ability to paint a scene in a just a few words. Here’s how Lu introduces her husband’s expectations that she embrace life as the perfect housewife:

Jeremy had grown up in Simsbury and his mother hadn’t worked “outside the home,” as she put it. They’d had a battalion of household help and as far as Lu could tell she hadn’t worked inside the home either. But try saying that to her.”

(Later, Lu points out that her surgeon-husband’s wishes were entirely understandable: “Who didn’t want a housewife? She’d goddamn kill for one.”)

Joy came to the island as an angry ex-wife, but a decade has already passed since that anger “floated away on an island wind.” As her daughter grew, “aggressively freckled, curious, and funny,” Joy “began to understand the rhythms of island life.

The way you worked your fingers to the bone during the summer in order to make enough money to survive the winter. Which of the island’s ponds offered the best ice-skating. Where to look for barn owl nests along Mohegan Bluffs. She was too busy to be angry, too consumed and (dare she say it) too happy to feel wronged.”

While I could relate to Lu and Joy, I laughed out loud at Anthony the author’s “head-writing,” when he described a scene in front of him as if he were writing a novel—even while admitting that “this would be the most boring book in the world if he ever wrote it.” Tongue just slightly in cheek, I felt like Moore was poking fun at the novelist’s eye—while also using it as shorthand to show us Anthony’s view.

Moore also uses Anthony’s initial unhappiness to convey the prison-like aspects of island life. Consider this description of a single-street downtown:

He could get ice cream, but he wasn’t hungry. He could buy a T-shirt, but he’d packed seven of his favorite gray shirts and didn’t need one. And anyway those activities might require smiling. They would definitely require interaction with human beings. And for sure they’d require money. No thank you, to all three. Anthony had come here to hide from the world. But how on earth was he going to be able to hide in a place so small?”

My two small criticisms of the book are the prologue (melodramatic, not needed, and soon forgotten) and that all three storylines were wrapped up a little bit too neatly—which once again reminds me of my own writing. Loving our characters as we do, both Moore and I want everything to end well. Since we’re in control, that’s exactly what happens.

I admire Moore’s ability to crank out such well-written books in just a few years—and can heartily recommend The Islanders to anyone who can’t wait until June 2020 to enjoy Ferry to Cooperation Island! Though both novels could be considered “beach reads,” I like to think that they each in their own way offer so much more than just a fluffy happily-ever-after throwaway. An island makes a very convenient metaphor; for our lucky characters, it is actually their whole world—even if it’s not forever, or as long as it lasts, but “just for the summer.”

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