Review first published 12/07/12
When thirty-year-old English teacher Anna Emerson is offered a job tutoring T.J. Callahan at his family’s summer rental in the Maldives, she accepts without hesitation; a working vacation on a tropical island trumps the library any day.
T.J. Callahan has no desire to leave town, not that anyone asked him. He’s almost seventeen and if having cancer wasn’t bad enough, now he has to spend his first summer in remission with his family – and a stack of overdue assignments – instead of his friends.
Anna and T.J. are en route to join T.J.’s family in the Maldives when the pilot of their seaplane suffers a fatal heart attack and crash-lands in the Indian Ocean. Adrift in shark-infested waters, their life jackets keep them afloat until they make it to the shore of an uninhabited island. Now Anna and T.J. just want to survive and they must work together to obtain water, food, fire, and shelter. Their basic needs might be met but as the days turn to weeks, and then months, the castaways encounter plenty of other obstacles, including violent tropical storms, the many dangers lurking in the sea, and the possibility that T.J.’s cancer could return. As T.J. celebrates yet another birthday on the island, Anna begins to wonder if the biggest challenge of all might be living with a boy who is gradually becoming a man.
I shall start with a confession… My tag name is Theta Sigma and I’m addicted to this book. I have Jana from the “That Artsy Reader Girl” to thank for this addiction and it’s one that I don’t regret for one chapter, page or word of this book.
I have read books where romance has been a factor including “The Fault In Our Stars”, “Amy and Roger’s Epic Detour” and even “Austenland”, where the storyline wasn’t driven by a real romance. “On The Island” is my first “proper” romantic novel and I loved it. (Not something a forty year-old guy normally admits to).
The plot is pacey and I was eager what happens to the lead characters, Anna and T.J., as they face the next challenge whether it be physical, psychological or emotional. It’s also very clever by manipulating the reader as circumstances by using physical and emotional factors to bring Anna and T.J. together or tear them apart.
All of the characters are well written and none of them are wasted, but it’s Anna and T.J. who really have to carry the novel as not only are the chapters are written in the first person from alternate perspectives, but they are the only two characters for the reader to interface with for the majority of the novel. Both characters also have to convince, and they do, through a story arc which starts as a tutor/pupil relationship, which graduates through to friendship and builds into a relationship between lovers and equals, despite their age difference.
T.J. starts the novel as a sixteen year old and from the outset although he doesn’t want to join his family, he is written with a maturity that belies his youth due to his “off stage” experience as a cancer survivor. The chapters which are from T.J.’s point of view also mature in language as he moves from a late teenager to a young man who enters a relationship with a woman thirteen years his senior. Another quality he displays alongside this maturity is his capacity for selflessness, especially where Anna is concerned – not only when they are lovers but right from when they arrive on the island.
Anna is the more complex and more interesting of the two characters, in my opinion. Why? Well, her journey has the greater emotional risk of the two as she starts her journey, both literally and emotionally, as T.J’s hired tutor, in effect an “authority figure”, who through circumstance has to bond together as a team to survive what the island throws at them and, eventually as lover and equal to T.J.when he becomes “of age”. Tracey Garvis-Greaves handles this arc by taking the relationship between the two leads by slowly changing the dynamic, as opposed to having go from co-habitees to lovers.
The relationship could have fallen into the trap of feeling salacious, ripe for titillation or for pure shock value, but Ms Garvis-Greaves avoids this ably by basing the relationship around emotion rather than simply being a physical one. As I said in the previous paragraph, the characters wait until T.J. turns nearly nineteen before he instigates the change from friends to lovers, and both characters debate the consequences of their actions to each other and internally. There are scenes where, and I may as well be blunt about it, sexual acts are intimated and described, but it’s not dwelt upon, it’s handled maturely and based on a level that is driven by emotional love and respect and not simply at a sexual level.
There is more to this book than what I’ve described, but I’m not going to engage in spoilers because I’m basically a big blabbermouth and it would be unfair of me to ruin the beautiful debut novel.
This is my favourite book so far this year and I hope that it will be one of my favourite, if not my favourite the time December 31st comes around.
Thank you Jana for recommending such a fantastic book to read.
If you want to know more about Tracey Garvis-Graves, “On The Island” or her forthcoming novel, “Covet”, which is released in Spring 2013, please check out her blog.
And I’m going to do a shout-out for Jana’s blog, “That Artsy Reader Girl” simply because she recommended this book. If you haven’t read it before, please check it out.