Enchanted Islands was my selection for June from Book of the Month, but it took me a while to actually start reading it. The story follows Frances Frank(owski) from her childhood through her old age, in the form of her writing down a memoir of sorts in order to record the rather extraordinary events of her life. The book starts with Frances in an old folk' home with her long-time friend Rosalie. Rosalie is receiving an award from a Jewish society for the work she did during the war, which mostly consisted of fund-raising. Frances is a bit jealous, because she was doing other work during the war that she can't talk about--which launches her into her recollections. Frances is from Duluth, Minnesota, and has a plethora of siblings and parents who haven't adjusted well to life as immigrants from Poland. While at the library one day, she meets Rosalie, and the two become fast friends. Following the revelation of some rather horrid things that happened to Rosalie, the two run away to Chicago, and after some time there and Rosalie being a really crappy friend, Frances runs away again, and eventually ends up in California. The real part of the story that Frances wants to talk about doesn't start until she's in her fifties, when she's working as a secretary for the intelligence portion of the navy and agrees to marry a man, Ainslie, who is eleven years her junior, so that they can go be spies in the Galapagos Islands.
Frances and Ainslie's relationship is off from the very beginning, and while I think most readers can easily determine why, it takes Frances quite a while to pin it down--understandably, given her background and knowledge. But it's sad to watch Frances pine for Ainslie's love when it's apparent that it's not really ever going to go anywhere, at least not in the way that she wants. The Galapagos Islands themselves are a beautiful backdrop to this drama as it plays out, though this isn't really a "spy story," as I thought it would be, except for one or two chapters. Beyond that, Frances is just a cover, and doesn't have much to do with the work that Ainslie is presumably off doing. Becuase this is a first-person story, it means it's mostly about her just living in the islands. But she loves them, loves how living there means that everything is focused on survival and has a visible impact, and also finds comfort in knowing that nothing they do will ultimately affect the state of the universe--though it might, just might, impact the world.
One thing I didn't like was Rosalie, and how Frances kept going back to her. I really hated Rosalie. I didn't mind her at the beginning--and she had some really terrible things happen to her when she was young. You could make the argument, and it would be a good one, that these events are what shaped Rosalie and her actions for the rest of her life. I even believe that. But Rosalie was still a really shitty friend at multiple points, and was an extremely selfish person, and I hated how Frances just let Rosalie walk all over her and forgave her for everything she did. You can have terrible things happen to you and not be a selfish, terrible person; Rosalie chose to take that path anyway, and then she had the audacity to try to tear down Frances at multiple points. I couldn't bring myself to like her, not even a little bit, and I think that tainted the book as a whole for me because I knew Rosalie was there and never really got what I consider her "just deserts." Sure, that doesn't always happen in real life, but I still wanted it to.
Overall, the part of this book that actually took place on the islands was the best. There were some beautiful descriptions and I think Frances really came into her own there--something she herself acknowledged at multiple points. But this is only a portion of the book, and the rest of it didn't have a ton of appeal to me. I wish there were more books with settings like this; it did make me want to read some things like Swiss Family Robinson, which I've never read before. But I don't think this is something I'll return to again and again.
3 stars out of 5.