From the Tournament of Books longlist.
What a hot mess. Judging from reviews on Amazon, I’m in the minority with that opinion, but I found it difficult to follow protagonist Frances Conway’s arc through the story. There’s a huge gap between her 16 and 50-something year-old selves, decades briefly highlighted, and the two did not connect for me. Frances/Fanny goes from naive teenager to something of a resigned spinster in few pages. I never quite caught up from that whiplash.
The novel spans Frances’s whole life, from child of Jewish immigrants in Minnesota, to Chicago with her best frenemy, Rosalie, to a farm in Nebraska, then onto California where she works at the Office of Naval Intelligence peri-WWII and is eventually asked to marry officer Ainslie Conway and move with him to the Galapagos Islands, where there are an awful lot of Germans (an awful lot for such a small, wild place), to engage in spycraft. The book’s title indicates that this period will be the story’s focus, but it comes in much later than expected. The first third or so of the novel therefore feels like it’s treading water as we follow Frances and Rosalie’s friendship, their “break-up,” and reunion years later in San Francisco. I wish the book had been either larger, to more fully explore Frances’s journey, or shorter, narrowing in on the time on the Galapagos.
I never came to care much for any of the characters or to get a grip on Frances and her shifting emotions. Add to that some cliche prose (though, judging by the highlights, often the very moments other readers found profound) and bizarre, unbelievable (even when true) additions to the plot, such as FDR’s non-appearance of an appearance and the fact that, oh, by the way, Frances wrote some books (Enchanted Islands is based on a real person who did in fact live on the Galapagos and write about her time there, a fact which I learned only after completing the novel and doesn’t excuse the haphazard way in which her writing is introduced), and you have a novel that I periodically considered dropping. Each time I’d think, “But I’ve already read this far, and I want to get to the Galapagos,” or, “I want to see how this spy stuff plays out and what happens with Frances and Ainslie.” I should have trusted my instincts and quit after the second eyeroll.