It has been a difficult spring. Birdie Cousins, divorced after more than thirty years of marriage to Grant, a high-profile New York attorney, is still adjusting to life as a single woman in her 50’s. Of late, she has been seeing Hank, who is attractive, charming, and attentive. Birdie has developed strong feelings for Roger. Unfortunately, Hank is still married, although his wife, suffering from Alzheimer’s, resides in an institution where she will spend the remainder of her life.
Birdie’s oldest daughter, Francesca — known to everyone as “Chess” — has come home in the midst of an emotional breakdown. To Birdie’s surprise, Chess has not only called off her September wedding to Michael. She has sublet her apartment, quit her job as an editor as a prestigious food and wine magazine, and thrown her cell phone in the trash, announcing that she does not want to talk to anyone.
Birdie’s sister, India, has just learned that the most promising student at the Pennsylvania Institute of the Fine Arts (PAFA), Lula, has just transferred to another school — because of her. India posed for a series of nude paintings recently featured in a show that drew rave reviews for Lula and PAFA. In the process, India experienced feelings that surprised and frightened her.
Lastly, Birdie’s youngest daughter, Elizabeth — known as “Tate” — has her own successful computer business. She travels constantly and has never found real love.
Birdie decides that the four of them should spend a month at the old family home on Tuckernut Island, just off the coast of Nantucket. Although they used to spend summers there, it has been thirteen years since they’ve been back. The old house needs a lot of work, though, as Birdie learns from Barrett, who has taken over his father’s caretaker business. Barrett agrees to oversee the renovations.
Before the women can begin their July get-away, however, Chess receives devastating news. While on a rock-climbing trip with his younger, musician brother, Nick, Michael has fallen to his death.
The four women’s time on Tuckernuck is supposed to bring them respite from their troubles. Chess is by far the most troubled, a fact her mother has recognized, and about which she is deeply and understandably alarmed. Prior to leaving for the island, Chess has seen a therapist every day who has recommended that she write her thoughts and feelings in a journal. As she does so, readers gradually learn out the real story behind her breakdown.
Chess is easily the most compelling of the four characters, as well, simply because her mental condition seems genuinely fragile. Sure, the others have problems, but they pale in comparison to the fact that Chess is experiencing the first real crisis of her life . . . and it’s a doozie. Although she is portrayed as a bit of a whiner at the outset, Chess is reminiscent of Robert Redford’s “Hubbell” in The Way We Were: Everything has always come too easy to her. She is bright, beautiful, outgoing, competitive. She has attained every goal she ever set for herself and gotten everything she ever wanted. Until, that is, she met Michael and his brother, Nick, and realized for the first time that love can be complicated, hurtful, and impossible to disregard. As her secret is slowly revealed, it becomes clear that Chess is weighed down by guilt and that weight is fueling her retreat from life. But should she feel guilty? Did she do anything wrong? Was she — along with Nick — responsible for Michael’s unhappiness? Or his fate? And where does she go from here? After all, life on Tucknernuck is nothing more than a temporary retreat, not a permanent solution.
India is tough, having survived a tumultuous, if loving, marriage to artist Bill, as well as his suicide and its aftermath. She is looking forward to being a grandmother soon, but her recent experience with Lula has proven deeply unsettling for a variety of reasons. She is attempting to maintain a professional and appropriate distance from Lula, who is plainly interested in much more than a business relationship with India. She is concerned not just about the actual implications of launching a relationship while Lula is a student, but, rightfully, the potential perception of impropriety. More importantly, Lula has stirred feelings in India that she has never experienced before and, although she wants to pursue them — if she can clear the professional hurdles — she is fearful of what her family and friends will think.
Tate has been in love with Barrett since she was a teenager. But back then, he only had eyes for Chess. He was smitten with her older sister as, it seemed, all the boys were, even though Chess had no interest in him. Their father even arranged a date for Chess and Barrett which turned out quite badly. In the thirteen years since Tate has seen Barrett, they have both matured. Tate is a successful businesswoman, while Barrett has taken over his father’s maintenance business. He is a widower with two young sons to raise. Will Barrett finally notice and appreciate Tate? Or will his old feelings for Chess be rekindled when he sees her again, especially now when she is so vulnerable and in need of support?
Lastly, there is Birdie, who divorced Grant because he was more married to his career than to her. She knows that her feelings for Hank are not right — he is, after all, still married, even if his wife is incapacitated with no hope of recovery. Hank has wined and dined her, showering her with the kind of attention she longed for from Grant. But with Grant she has the comfort and familiarity that comes with having been together for over three decades, during which they raised two beautiful daughters. Their time has passed . . . hasn’t it? Grant will never change. He’ll always be obsessed with his career . . . won’t he?
Author Elin Hildenbrand has created four female characters and placed them in an entrancing setting. Her descriptions of Tuckernuck are rich with detail and imbued with loving vignettes about the island, its traditions and inhabitants. It is a place any reader would want to visit, sheltered from society and accessible only by boat, even though the house is somewhat crude, lacking hot water and only generating enough electricity for a few small appliances. No cell phone reception? No problem. A brisk walk to the end of the island where there is reception is good exercise on a warm summer day, and a wonderful opportunity to further explore the island.
After a month at their island hideaway, it is no wonder that by the time the book concludes, all four women are feeling better about themselves and their lives, rested and rejuvenated after lying on the beach, eating light meals, taking walks, and sleeping as much as they want while contemplating their problems, and pondering solutions. With the possible exception of Chess, none of the four women are facing very serious issues, and all are fortunate in that they have complete financial stability. Still, each character is well-developed, her history fleshed out in sufficient detail to place her current concerns in context. And each is at a crossroads — none of their lives will be the same after they leave the island and return to their “real” lives and responsibilities. By the end of their vacation on Tuckernuck, has each woman learned something about herself? Yes, and that makes the read worthwhile.
The Island is enjoyable, the action moving along swiftly with a few surprises and plot twists thrown in to keep things interesting. It is the perfect book to pack in your tote bag and read on the beach or by the pool. The theme, tone, characters, and pace all combine to make it a delightful “beach read.”