#tobyreads: Islands & Isolation


I finished Tiphanie Yanique’s Land of Love and Drowning earlier this week. It’s a fantastic novel, one that spans years and does interesting things with what is, on the surface, a familiar-looking kind of narrative: the one that follows a small group of characters over a span of decades, and finds them walking through a shifting society. And, yes, Yanique’s novel is set in the Virgin Islands, and yes, it does (mostly) follow two sisters as they witness and take part in shifts in the world in which they live, from wars to natural disasters to the U.S.’s governance of their home. (Right about here, I should probably mention that Jason Diamond’s review is spot-on.)

But Yanique’s way of telling this story never goes the obvious route. Much like the stories in her collection How to Escape From a Leper Colony experimented with time, this novel does interesting things with narration. And the novel’s literary lineage is also fascinating: some magic realism here, some proper history there. And Anette, one of the novel’s two central characters, goes through a series of relationships in the novel’s first half that plays out like an echo of Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country. It’s a rich and rewarding experience.

I’ve been meaning to write about Emma Straub’s The Vacationers for a couple of weeks now. It’s a harder book about to write about than one might expect, largely because what clicked for me is how well Straub brought the elements of this story together. On the surface, the plot is simple: it’s about a New York family’s trip to Mallorca, which may or may not suffice to save a marriage that’s lasted for thirty-five years. But the dynamics between the characters are refreshingly unfamiliar: one character who we’re led to believe will be difficult to interact with turns out to be one of the novel’s most pragmatic and relatable figures, and the way that questions of money, class, and ambition are raised is done skillfully. 

While working on a review of another book, I noticed that one of the recurring themes in novels I’ve enjoyed this year is one of dislocation: specifically, how a character reacts when they’re permanently separated from an occupation or vocation that defined them. That anxiety is present here as well, for one of its main characters, and it’s notes like this that resonate. For all that this is a book that delights in the visual and tactile aspects of its setting, it’s also aware that the trip at its center is a finite one, that the island’s permanent residents have their own lives, their own histories. It’s another facet of the empathy that this novel has in abundance.

(And it also means that I’ll have mental associations for Mallorca that aren’t Red Ships of Spain.)

Edan Lepucki’s California is set at some point in the near future; through a combination of disease, catastrophic weather, and natural disasters, American society as we know it has collapsed. Frida and Cal, the couple at the center of the novel, are, when it opens, living in isolated house somewhere in the state that gives the book its title. Gradually, we see aspects of their lives; we learn of Cal’s education, of Frida’s family. But to say anything more would be to deprive readers of the pleasure of seeing…well, just what kind of novel set after a societal collapse this is. (There are two works that have been released in the past year and a half that this seems like a good companion piece to, but to reveal one of them might, again, be to say too much.) Suffice it to say, it got inside my head very well, and there are some powerfully unsettling thematic undercurrents running throughout the book. It’s a hard one to shake.

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