The perfect summer reading book is different for everyone, but to me, it has to have three basic elements: an exciting adventure, far-off travel, and intriguing characters. Enchanted Islands, the new novel from Allison Amend, author of A Nearly Perfect Copy, has all those things and more, making it the kind of book that will give you serious wanderlust this summer.
Inspired by the memoirs of Frances Conway, an almost entirely unheard of secretary in the Office of Naval Intelligence turned spy in the years leading up to World War II, Enchanted Islands (Nan A. Talese, May 24) follows the life of Frances "Fanny" Frankowski, a poor Polish Jewish girl from Minnesota determined to leave her sad, static life behind. One of seven children of poor immigrant parents, Fanny is devastated when her parents tell her at age 14 that its time for her to quit school, get a job, and contribute to the household. Fanny all but accepts her lot in life, living in a crammed apartment with three other sisters and three other brothers, working as a secretary in her dull Minnesota town, until Rosalie, Fanny's fiercest friend and closest confidant, needs her help. The kind of girl who had everything Fanny could have ever wanted — money, beauty, and a chance at an education — Rosalie harbors a dark secret of her own, and after years of dreaming about running away, the two girls finally hop on a train, hand in hand, headed for Chicago and a brand new life at 15.
" 'Oh Fanny,' she sighed. 'What have we done?' "
" 'We've rescued ourselves,' I said."
And that's only the beginning.
In Chicago, Fanny and Rosalie find new adventure, liberating independence, a supportive community, and first loves, but it is ultimate betrayal between the two girls that change their friendship forever. When the two women meet again decades later, their lives have taken them in two completely different directions. Rosalie is married with children, but Fanny is a 50-year-old Naval secretary about to embark on her biggest adventure yet: marrying a younger naval officer, Ainslie Conway, and working undercover in the Galapagos as a spy for the United States.
In the Galapagos, Fanny, trying to wrap her head around not only being married for the first time but also being an undercover agent, finds excitement and adventure beyond her wildest dreams. From the exotic wildlife, beautiful but deadly flora and fauna, and dangerous neighbors, the Galapagos is unlike anywhere she's ever been, and her wonder shines through her descriptions of the enchanting place.
"I craned my neck around to make out the barest hint of land, and then — was that a cloud? No, it was a mountain with a rounded top, and a few minutes later it was joined by its cousins. Then it took on a green tint, and as we got closer I got a first look at our island. Cliffs, covered in birds and their 'souvenirs,' fell down to the water. Here and there a little greenery would tentatively make a stab at growth, while up above scrub brush tangled with its neighbor."
Like Fanny herself, the islands are more complicated than they appear, and ever changing. A mirror of Fanny's own even evolving life, there's a certain magic in the mysterious world of the Galapagos.
"The land was so dry it was desert, the bushes not much more than sticks. And then it appeared someone had drawn a demarcation line; it began to get more lush until after about another half hour we were walking in the tropics. The ground was spongy, tangled with brambles, bushes, leaves, and shrubbery all vying for light under the canopy, growing on top of their fallen comrades [...] I was amazed that the landscape could change that quickly, and I later learned that this kind of variation is typical of the Galapagos Islands: If you don't like the scenery, walk three miles."
But Fanny's time in the Galapagos isn't all sunshine and beach adventure. It's hard and dangerous work trying to survive the exotic environment and keep tabs on the Germans living there, and while she tries builds a life for her and Ainslie, the secrets and lies between them threaten to tear them down. But through it all, there is Rosalie, once the object of Fanny's jealousy who has in turn become the purveyor of it. Despite their childhood transgressions, despite their years of separation, these two fiercely loyal women maintain a connection deeper than the ones they share with anyone else, even their husbands.
Enchanted Islands is a mesmerizing and captivating historical fiction novel that is so much more than a spy story. It's a story about human connection and relationships, the power of friendship, and the sacrifices people are willing to make for those they love. It's a story of women seeking their independence, poor immigrants determined to make a life for themselves, and a world full of people ready to tell them no. And finally, it's a story about travel and excitement, new cities and exotic islands, beautiful landscapes and breathtaking scenery. It's the kind of book that will make you want to renew your passport. Are you up for the adventure?
Image: Sadie Trombetta