The question of independence is at the center of Allison Amend’s novel Enchanted Islands. Loosely based on the memoirs of Frances Conway, the book explores the struggle of a woman creating a life for herself, straddling the conventions of her time.
Born to a poor immigrant (Polish) Jewish family in the mid-western US, Frances never quite has a place to call her own. Her friendship with Rosalie, the daughter of an established German Jewish family highlights every limitation, even as she discovers that things are not always as they appear. As young women the two friends leave their hometown together, but after Rosalie’s betrayal, Frances decides to make her future on her own.
Frances remains an isolated character, a position that gives her the freedom to take on her adventure with the military intelligence. Away from society and the constraints of expected behavior, Frances finds a sort of peace. Or gets as close to being comfortable in this world as she is ever going to be.
Amend’s novel has a sense of disarray and incompleteness that complements Frances’ independent spirit. The world is an untidy place, and any single person who must live in it necessarily lives in that messiness. Amend is at her best as a writer describing the natural world of the Galapagos. She captures the connections between the islands and the surrounding trade and political infrastructure with clarity and succeeds in highlighting the uniqueness of her setting.
Readers who enjoy American military and social history will most appreciate this book. Amend’s characterizations of the Jewish community slant towards the cliche and are a weaker aspect of the novel. The diversity of its characters and military connections provides lots of potential for book club discussions. It is difficult to read this book without considering one’s personal experiences and understanding of WWII, the military, the Jewish community and sexism. Readers who are open to allowing Amend to plumb the depths of their memories will be rewarded with an imaginative and touching book. Others will find that they prefer to leave these complexities buried.