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Enchanted Islands by Allison Amend
Historical fiction

Enchanted Islands

by Allison Amend

Quick take

The author has re-imagined one of the stranger episodes of Galapagos history as something of an intelligence race, an ex-spy's tell-all.

Why I love it

Alexander Chee
Author

The website of the Galapagos Conservancy contains this curiously understated comment: "In the 1930s, a small group of people tried to colonize the island but ultimately failed. Their story is told in the book The Enchanted Islands: A Five-year Adventure in the Galapagos by Ainslie and Frances Conway."

But what if the Conways were more than just failed colonists? What if they really were spies, as has been rumored? What if their seemingly hapless mission in fact a part of something more dangerous? This is the subject of Allison Amend's new novel, in which she has re-imagined one of the stranger episodes of Galapagos history as something of an intelligence race, an ex-spy's tell-all. The book is also the memoir of a lifelong friendship and a compelling account of the experience of a Jewish Eastern European immigrant woman in America just before World War II.

The result is a novel that reads like the prequel I have always hoped for to one of my favorite Hitchcock films, The Lady Vanishes in which the title character, a seemingly kind old woman, turns out to be a veteran spy.

When we meet Frances, the hero and narrator of Enchanted Islands, she is a salty retiree in a nursing home where she lives with her best friend from childhood, Rosalie. After Rosalie is honored for her "work during the war," Frances, chafing with jealousy, heads off down the halls of memory, recounting her life from a childhood with Rosalie through the real account of what she did for her country on the Galapagos many decades before.

Frances is not a terrific spy, but she is determined, and she also has a great love for the Galapagos, which at the time was a barren and desolate part of the world. The mission involves her adapting to a land with no arable farmland and no culture except that which she brings with her. Populated with a handful of survivalists, the Galapagos colony is visited infrequently by ships bringing supplies, mail, news of the impending war in Europe, and classified communications. Frances and Ainslie have been dispatched to keep an eye on a few Germans who – it is suspected – might be sending information back to the Nazis about the Galapagos' viability as a stopover point between Japan and the U.S.'s crucial but relatively undefended territory in the Panama Canal. Frances' initial excitement about the mission – keeping the Galapagos out of the hands of the enemies and preserving it as a potential American base – is quickly subsumed by the everyday hardships of surviving on an island with almost no resources.

The mission also strands her in an arranged marriage with a handsome man about a decade younger than her. But they learn to make do, and soon enough, fall into an "arrangement" that suits them and their mission both. Frances is a fascinating character, a woman society otherwise had no use for, who finds a way to become essential, first to herself, then to others. By turns funny, moving, and suspenseful, it is an adventure of several kinds set at the edge of the world with an unforgettable heroine.

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Member thoughts

All (670)
All (670)
Love (284)
Like (336)
Dislike (50)
707 ratings
  • 40% Love
  • 48% Like
  • 7% Dislike
  • Henrico, VA

    The story takes its time unwinding, but somehow never feels slow. Maybe that's because Frances is such a delightful narrator. Her sly humor and self-awareness make for an unexpectedly emotional read.

  • Houston, TX

    Beautifully written. I'm not sure of just how much of the book was historical vs how much was fictional, but it left me wanting to know more about Frances and Ainsley Conway. Truly captivating story.

  • campbell, CA

    There is a reflective quality to this book. It made me think about the relationships in my life. I loved that it was partially set in the Bay Area - I kept wanting to retrace the character's steps.

  • Chambersburg, PA

    Yes! I just loved this story and the characters. Frannie is one fierce role model but not in an obvious way. I fell in love with her instantly. Loved different relationships explored in this book!

  • Richmond, VA

    Even though this book was slow, it felt like a really rich cup of coffee. The descriptions, the characters, and even the story that was over the course of so many years. This book was stunning.

  • Manchester, IA

    I didn’t realize this was historical fiction when I purchased this. But what a pleasant surprise! I found it fascinating and ended up searching for more to read about the Galapagos islands.

  • Seattle, WA

    I love the era and the depth of characters; that they could love each other so much knowing the truths about each other. Made me happy for them, while my heart ached a little at the losses

  • Durham, NC

    I read this with no context or back story and absolutely loved it. At the end, I realized it was based on a true woman and was blown away. A true testament to picking up and starting over.

  • Dallas, TX

    Oh the sacrifices we make for love, friendship, and country--even when we don't get anything in return. This book was a gorgeous testament to the complexities of love and friendship.

  • USA, CA

    My favorite BOTM. I loved the narrative style that had me completely entrenched in life in the Galapagos. I loved the protagonist and greatly appreciated her pioneering lifestyle.

  • Washington, DC

    Loved this story crafted by Allison Amend about two real individuals who existed. Fascinating and captivating read with incredibly sympathetic characters (I loved Frances)!

  • Woodbridge, VA

    This book helped me during the hardest time of my life. It gives you an amazing insight into what really is a marriage when you're seperated from the rest of the world.

  • Pensacola, FL

    Wow. This was not what I was expecting, but I really enjoyed the adventure. I am now looking at other reads related to the real characters this novel was based on. :)

  • HOUSTON, TX

    Amend imagined this unusual couple as American spies, sent to the islands to observe Germans living there. It was a great read with vivid characters and descriptions.

  • St Paul, MN

    Absolutely adored this book. I loved the eventful life it described and how it was all "normal" because things just came along, and she rolled with the punches.

  • Monterey, CA

    enchanted friendships. what time and an island between people can do. such a delightful journey thru love, and how love can come in so many different forms.

  • Manchester, NJ

    LOVED this book, and could not put it down. It shows how life isn't always what you expect it to be, but these characters were resilient and captivating.

  • Syracuse, NY

    Franny was given a persistent difficult life, and yet she never gives up. Instead she continues to learn, grow, and happens to save the world humbly.

  • Chicopee, MA

    Lots of interesting themes in this book, from feminism to homosexuality, with a fair amount of intrigue, history, and travel woven through as well.

  • Los Angeles, CA

    It was a quick fun read for me. It reminded me of this other book, "Euphoria", I'd read but this was sooo much better. Well developed characters!

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